Determining a Medical Word's Meaning Based on Its Parts

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: How Basic Medical Terms Describe Disease Signs, Symptoms & Syndromes

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Too-Long Medical Terms
  • 1:30 How to Define a Medical Term
  • 2:26 Examples
  • 7:44 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

This lesson will help you to understand how to take an unfamiliar medical term apart and then define it. We will look at several examples and discuss how the term is read.

Too-Long Medical Terms

You just finished your visit to the doctor and now you have been told that you need to go see an otolaryngologist for further evaluation for possible rhinosinusitis with chronic laryngitis or dysphagia due to gastroesophageal reflux disease. Your response to this may have been something to the order of, 'You want me to see who about what? I'll take that again in English this time please!'

That is your response before you know how to break those overly long and weird-looking medical terms down into their word parts and define them. Recall that there are three different word parts that can make up a medical term. There is a word root, or combining form, which tells the subject of the term. The combining form is when the letter 'a,' 'i' or 'o' is added to the word root when the suffix or next word root being attached begins with a consonant.

Another word part is the suffix, which helps to explain what the subject of the term is doing, having done to it, or what a person is doing in relation to it. The third part of a medical term is the prefix. This helps to specify the subject of the term or gives an anatomical location in relation to the subject of the term. Keep in mind that not all medical terms have prefixes, but almost all have suffixes.

How to Define a Medical Term

You now know how to identify the different word parts in a medical term. That is crucial to being able to break down and understand what the term is telling you. The other thing you need to know is how medical terms are read and explained. To define a medical term correctly, you actually start at the end. You should explain the suffix, then the prefix, and finally the word roots and/or combining forms.

If the word doesn't have a prefix, then define the suffix and then the word root or combining form. There are instances when terms don't have a true word root or combining form. The suffix acts as the word root in these terms. When you come across one of these terms, you define the prefix followed by the suffix. It's time for us to look at a few examples.


At the beginning of this lesson, we heard some word roots as well as common prefixes and suffixes. Let's take a look at those terms we got from the doctor's visit. One term that made our heads spin from that visit is the term 'rhinosinusitis.' The suffix for this term is '-itis,' which means 'inflammation of.' There isn't a prefix in this term. The first combining form is 'rhino,' which means 'nose.' Next is the word root 'sinus,' which means 'sinus or sinus cavity.' 'Rhinosinusitis' means 'inflammation of the nose and sinus.' This refers to an infection in the lining of the nose and sinus cavities, also known as a sinus infection.

The next term for us to break down from our visit is 'laryngitis.' This term also includes the suffix '-itis,' which means 'inflammation of.' The word root in this term is 'laryng-,' which means 'larynx,' which is more commonly known as the 'throat.' You should come up with the meaning 'inflammation of the larynx.' Inflammation of the larynx would likely cause a person to lose their voice, so this term is also used for when a person is hoarse or loses their voice. Putting all of this together, 'rhinosinusitis with chronic laryngitis' means that a patient has 'an infection in the nose and sinus cavities that has caused long-term inflammation in the larynx with voice loss.'

Let's look at the other possible diagnosis, 'dysphagia due to gastroesophageal reflux disease.' The first term to breakdown is 'dysphagia.' The suffix here is '-phagia,' which means 'swallowing.' The prefix is 'dys-,' which means 'difficult or painful.' Notice that there isn't a combining form in this term. You define this term by explaining the prefix and then the suffix. This term means 'difficulty swallowing.'

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account