Glossary of Medical Terms

Abdomen: What you usually call your stomach. To your doctor, it refers to the digestive, urinary, and reproductive organs in the cavity from the diaphragm to the pelvis.

ABMS: American Board of Medical Specialties. The not-for-profit organization that oversees certification of physicians in their specialties.

Absorbable suture: Suture that dissolves.

Accreditation: Credential showing that a health care facility has met high standards for performance and safety.

Acute: Severe and short-term, not chronic (as in an illness).

Adhesion: Fibrous band of scar tissue that can form anytime after an abdominal operation. It can bind organs or other internal body structures.

Admitting privileges: Physician's right to admit patients to a hospital.

Adrenal gland: Pair of glands on the kidneys that produce hormones that control important functions, such as blood pressure, heart rate, and the body's response to stress.

Advance directive: Legal document to be used for health care decisions when someone cannot speak for himself or herself. See living will and power of attorney for health care.

Adverse: Unfavorable, unwanted, as in effects of a drug or complications of a procedure.

Altruism: Unselfishness; dedication to others' well-being.

Ambulatory: Outpatient, as in ambulatory surgical facility.

Analgesia: Pain relief.

Analgesic: Medicine that relieves pain.

Anemic: Having an abnormally low number of red blood cells. Sometimes called iron-poor blood.

Anesthesia: Use of a substance (gas, injection, paste, or liquid) to remove sensitivity to pain. The substance is called an anesthetic. A physician who performs anesthesia is called an anesthesiologist. A nurse who is certified to perform anesthesia is a nurse anesthetist.

Anesthesiologist: Physician who performs anesthesia.

Anesthetist: See nurse anesthetist.

Angioplasty: Minimally invasive procedure using a balloon to open a blocked or narrowed artery, a blood vessel of the heart. Also called balloon angioplasty.

Appendicitis: Infection of the appendix.

Appendix: Small, narrow, hollow organ that is part of the large intestine. It has no useful function in humans and occasionally gets infected (appendicitis).

Arterial line: Thin catheter inserted into an artery in the wrist or groin to constantly monitor blood pressure or to obtain blood samples for monitoring blood oxygen levels.

Artery: Blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the body.

Autologous: Refers to self, as in an autologous blood donation.

bariatric surgical procedure: Weight-loss operation performed in selected patients who are morbidly (very) obese. Types of bariatric procedures include gastric bypass, gastric banding, or "stomach stapling."

Aenign: Noncancerous.

Bilateral: Two-sided. Normally refers to right side and left side.

Biopsy: Sampling of tissue from an abnormal area, such as a lump or tumor.

Blood transfusion: Replacement of blood lost during an operation or injury.

Board-certified: Credential showing that a physician has passed examinations that test knowledge in a specialty of medicine.

Bowel obstruction: See intestinal obstruction.

Candidate: Patient who is eligible to have a specific treatment or surgical procedure.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation: See CPR.

Cardiovascular: Refers to the heart and blood vessels.

Cataract: Clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye. The lens helps the eye to focus.

CT scan: Computed tomography. A huge machine that takes multiple X-rays of the body at short intervals. A computer then integrates these X-rays to give precise images of the body, bones, internal organs, or brain. A special computer program can make the images three-dimensional. Used widely for diagnosis and to observe disease, such as cancerous tumors, during treatment. Sometimes called CAT scan (computed axial tomography).

Catheter: Tube that comes in various sizes and is used to inject fluids or medicines, and to remove blood and other body fluids.

Chaplain: A clergy member or other faith leader who meets the religious and spiritual needs of patients in a hospital.

Charge nurse: The nurse leader on the inpatient floor who is responsible for overall care, planning, staffing, and operations. Usually this nurse is very experienced and has no direct patient care assignment.

Chemotherapy: Multiple medicines used singly or in combination to treat cancer and sometimes other diseases. May be called "chemo."

Chronic: Ongoing, long-term medical condition.

Clinical nurse specialist: Registered nurse with advanced education and training in one area of nursing.

Clinical trial: Research study that tests a new treatment in people or compares two or more existing treatments.

Complication: An unexpected and unwanted result of a medical treatment or surgical procedure. Differs from a side effect, which is an unwanted effect expected to happen sometimes. A side effect can lead to a complication.

Compression stockings: Long tight socks worn to put pressure on the leg muscles, to avoid a blood clot forming after an operation.

Conscious sedation: Use of sedatives and pain medicine in which the patient stays awake but probably will not remember the procedure.

Constipation: Difficulty in passing stool, or hard or infrequent stools.

CPR: Cardiopulmonary resuscitation. A lifesaving procedure of rescue breaths and chest compressions to restore someone's breathing after the heart stops.

Critical care unit: See intensive care unit.

Dietitian: Person trained in nutrition.

DIfferential diagnosis: List of possible diagnoses to explain symptoms.

Discharge: Doctor's order that a patient is ready to go home from a hospital or surgical facility.

Durable power of attorney for health care: See power of attorney for health care.

Echocardiogram (ECG or EKG): An ultrasonogram (ultrasound image) of the heart. Shows shadows of the heart chambers, valves, and major blood vessels. With the addition of color, it shows the direction of blood flow in all parts of the heart.

Elective operation: Planned operation, which is not needed right away but scheduled at a convenient time for the surgeon and the patient.

Electrocardiogram: A test that records the electrical activity of the heart. Measures the rate and regularity of heart beats, the size and position of the chambers, presence of damage to the heart, and the effects of drugs or devices (like a pacemaker) to regulate the heart.

Emergency surgical procedure: Operation that must be done soon after symptoms of an acute condition begin. Usually it is within hours of a diagnosis.

Endoscope: Small lighted viewing tube similar to a telescope, used to see inside the body during a minimally invasive procedure.

ER: Emergency room. Area in the hospital where emergency conditions are first treated. Also called emergency department (ED).

Esophagus: Part of the digestive canal between the throat and stomach, through which food passes.

FACS: Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Designation for members of the College.

Fast-track surgery: Although this term or concept isn't used everywhere, it means a surgical approach that uses a combination of techniques to reduce the body's stress response and to shorten recovery time. Also called rapid recovery.

Fellowship: Training program after residency to gain experience in a medical or surgical specialty or subspecialty.

Fibroid: Benign tumor, sometimes found in the uterus (womb).

Gallbladder: Organ beneath the liver that stores bile, a substance that helps in the digestion of fats.

Gastrointestinal: Refers to the stomach and intestine.

General anesthesia: Patient is asleep. Major operations usually are performed this way. It often is started with an intravenous (IV) drug and then maintained with a gas, requiring the patient to breathe through a mask or tube.

General surgeon: Surgeon who is trained in the diagnosis and management of a broad range of surgical conditions.

Hernia: Protrusion of tissue in the abdominal wall. See inguinal hernia.

HIPAA: Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. This 1996 federal law requires most health care organizations to supply you with a privacy notice, which explains the organization's practices of how it uses your health information and how it keeps identifying information confidential.

Hospitalist: Hospital-based doctor specially trained to take care of patients in the hospital.

Hysterectomy: Removal of the uterus (womb).

ICU: See intensive care unit.

ileus: See paralytic ileus.

Incentive spirometer: A device used by the patient after an operation for breathing exercises that help expand the lungs and prevent lung complications.

Incision: Cut made in the skin and tissues to perform a surgical procedure.

Incontinence: Inability to control one's bladder (urinary incontinence) or bowel (fecal incontinence).

Induction: Usually refers to the initial process of anesthesia. May also be used for the first treatment with cancer medicines, as in chemotherapy induction.

Informed consent: Process of giving written permission to have a procedure and indicating that one understands why the procedure is needed, its intended result, and its risks and benefits.

Infusion pump: Intravenous pump used to give IV fluids and drugs.

Inguinal hernia: Hernia (protrusion of tissue) occurring in the groin (inguinal region), the area between the top of the thigh and the lowest part of the belly.

Injection: Shot of medicine or fluids into the body by a needle or needle system. See entries for intravenous (IV) and intramuscular.

Intensive care unit: Special unit of the hospital where patients receive close monitoring and extra care. Also called ICU or critical care unit.

Intensivist: Doctor specially trained to take care of critically ill patients in the hospital and who coordinates care with the patient's surgeon and primary care doctor.

Intern: Physician in the first postgraduate year of training after graduating from medical school. Also known as PGY-1, postgraduate year one.

Intestine: Tube-like structure in the body that aids in digestion, provides the body with water and nutrients, and moves stool. Also called bowel and gut.

Intestinal obstruction: Blockage of the intestine. Symptoms include stomach pain, bloating, and vomiting. Also called bowel obstruction.

Intraocular lens: Artificial lens implanted in the eye to substitute for the natural lens, which is partly or totally removed during a cataract operation.

Intraoperative awareness: See surgical awareness.

Intramuscular: Means "inside a muscle." May refer to an injection into a muscle or to describe the location of something abnormal. Example: an intramuscular mass.

Intravenous (IV): Way of putting fluids or medications into a vein, usually with a small plastic tube or catheter.

Intubation: Insertion of a tube, such as a catheter, into the body.

Invasive surgical procedure: Surgical procedure that involves cutting or puncturing the skin or insertion of surgical instruments into the body.

Joint Commission: The national organization that oversees accreditation of many health care facilities.

Kidney: One of two organs that are part of the urinary system.

Laparoscopy: See minimally invasive surgery.

Licensed practical nurse (LPN), licensed vocational nurse (LVN): A person licensed by the state to do certain basic levels of patient care at the bedside. Reports to a registered nurse.

Liver: Organ that helps in digestion and cleanses the blood.

Living will: Written record of the health care an individual requests if that person is unable to make his or her own medical decisions.

Local anesthesia: Numbing of a small area of skin and tissue under the skin so that a painless cut can be made. Can be applied to the skin as a paste or shot. The injection hurts a little as the needle goes in, then numbs the area of injection. Pain loss lasts from 30 minutes to two hours depending on the numbing medicine used. Often used for minor outpatient procedures.

Lumpectomy: Removal of a cancerous breast tumor and a small area of tissue around it.

Lymph gland: Swelling of tissue in the lymphatic system, a lymph gland traps tumors and infections. Often enlarges with infection—for example, in the throat, ear, or eye, or in cases where the cancer spreads to it. The lymphatic system, also called lymphatics, is a system of colorless vessels running throughout the body. The lymphatics gather up tissue fluids and return them through larger channels to a vein in the neck. Also called lymph node.

Lymph node: See lymph gland.

Magnetic resonance imaging: See MRI.

Major surgical procedure: Operation that requires anesthesia or respiratory assistance.

Malignant: Cancerous, as when cells have the capacity to grow outside of the place they began and spread to other parts of the body by direct growth, bloodstream, or the lymphatic system. May require an operation, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, or a combination of these therapies to control or halt the cancer. There are many types of malignant tumors.

Mastectomy: Removal of an entire breast, usually because of breast cancer.

Medical durable power of attorney: See power of attorney for health care.

Medical student: Person who after college attends medical school. Spends the first two years of medical school in classes and laboratories and the last two years on clinical rotations in hospitals. The medical degree (MD) is awarded on graduation. Graduates of an osteopathic medical school earn a DO (doctor of osteopathy).

Minimally invasive surgery: Technique in which a surgeon does a deep surgical procedure by passing long-handled instruments through several tiny incisions. A video image of the inside of the body, taken by a small camera inserted into the body, enlarges the surgical area and allows the surgeon to see what she is doing. Laparoscopy is an operation in the abdomen; thoracoscopy, a surgical procedure in the chest.

Minor surgical procedure: An operation that is less invasive, of short duration (usually less than an hour), and has a shorter period of recovery. A minor procedure does not require general anesthesia or respiratory assistance.

MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging. Technique that shows images of the internal parts of the body but does not use X-rays. The machine is a large magnet that acts on the millions of magnets in the human body, lining them up. A computer interprets these images and presents them as an internal image of the body. Often used for imaging bones, tumors, and the brain and spinal cord.

Narcotic: Prescription painkiller, such as morphine, codeine, or oxycodone.

Negative: Normal, as in the result of a lab test or biopsy.

NSAID: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Relieves pain and inflammation.

Nurse anesthetist: Registered nurse who is certified to perform anesthesia.

Nurse practitioner: Advanced practice nurse with a master's degree and special training. Can practice in an inpatient setting, outpatient setting, or both. Often functions as a physician extender. This varies from state to state, from full independence to practicing with a physician.

Nurse's aide: A patient care assistant in the hospital who is not a registered nurse. Also called nurse assistant.

Occupational therapist: Person trained to help patients acquire or reacquire life skills, such as feeding, dressing, and bathing.

Oncologist: Doctor who specializes in the treatment of cancer.

Oncology: The study of cancer.

Open surgical technique: Manner of performing an operation in which the surgeon makes a cut in the body. (Differs from a minimally invasive surgical procedure.)

Operating room (OR): Room in which an operation is performed.

Opioid: Morphine-like narcotic medication used to reduce pain.

Orthopedic surgeon: Physician with extensive training in the diagnosis and treatment, both nonsurgical and surgical, of the musculoskeletal system, including muscles, bones, joints, ligaments (tissues connecting bones), tendons (tissues connecting muscles to bones), and nerves.

Outcome: Result, such as of an operation.

Over-the-counter: Available without a doctor's prescription, as in medication.

Oxygen saturation: Percentage that shows how well the lungs provide oxygen to the blood. It is the percentage of hemoglobin (the oxygen-transporting protein in red blood cells) in the blood.

PACU: Postanesthesia care unit. See recovery room.

Pancreas: Solid organ in the mid-upper abdomen. It makes enzymes to digest food, which empty through a duct, a hollow tube, into the duodenum (see intestine). It also makes insulin, which controls blood sugar.

Paralytic ileus: Temporary intestinal paralysis (inability to move the bowels) that can occur after an abdominal operation.

Patient-controlled analgesia: See PCA.

Patient liaison: In a hospital, the person who helps patients and their families resolve nonmedical problems, such as complaints about the facility, quality of care, or access to care. May be called patient representative.

Patient-to-nurse ratio: Number of patients that each hospital floor nurse cares for.

PCA: Patient-controlled analgesia. An intravenous device that allows the patient to push a button and release pain medications into the bloodstream. The dose is carefully calculated, and there is a "lockout" mechanism on the machine so the patient cannot overdose.

Phlebotomist: Health professional trained to draw blood for testing.

Physical therapist: Rehabilitation professional who evaluates and treats movement dysfunction; for example, teaches walking with crutches and retrains muscles that have lost function from an operation or injury.

Physical therapy: Rehabilitation to restore function and independence.

Physician's assistant: Person licensed by the state to perform the functions of a physician extender. This person is usually not a nurse so does not have a nurse's breadth of medical knowledge. Practices under the supervision of a physician.

Plastic surgeon: Physician with special training in performing cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.

Pneumonia: Lung infection.

Postanesthesia care unit: See recovery room.

Postoperative: After an operation.

Power of attorney for health care: Legal document stating who will make decisions about a person's medical care if that person becomes incapacitated. Also called medical durable power of attorney.

Preauthorization: Required advance notice to an insurer that a member of the insurance plan is having major treatment such as a hospital admission. Also called precertification.

Preemptive pain control: Medical pain relief given before an operation, to try to preempt, or forestall, pain after the procedure. Not used very frequently.

Preoperative: Before an operation.

Preregistration: Process of giving a surgical facility insurance and medical information before the day of an operation. Also called preadmission.

Prophylaxis: Preventive treatment, as in antibiotic prophylaxis.

Prostate: Male gland that works with the bladder muscles to control urine flow. It also contributes to the fluid in semen.

Prostatectomy: Removal of the prostate.

Pulse oximeter: A device, typically put on a fingertip, that measures oxygen saturation.

Radiation therapy: Strong X-ray beams are directed at the area to be treated, such as a cancerous tumor. This technique involves sophisticated methods of outlining the tumor, gauging its size, and determining how much radiation is needed to shrink the tumor. May be used in combination with chemotherapy and an operation.

Radiologist: Doctor who is in charge of the equipment used for imaging diagnostic tests, including ultrasound, X-ray, CT, MRI, and PET. Also reads the images produced. Radiology is a medical specialty and requires years of study after medical school.

Recovery room: Place where the patient spends time to awaken from anesthesia. Also called postanesthesia care unit (PACU). How long you spend there depends on, among other things, the length of your operation and the anesthesia you received.

Regional anesthesia: Injection of a local anesthetic into the nerves supplying the area to be numbed. It takes longer to act than a local anesthetic but lasts longer. Used when a larger area needs numbing.

Registered nurse: Person who is trained to plan and give patient care. May be trained in a two-year school and hold a diploma or may have a bachelor's or master's degree in nursing. Is licensed by the state, which develops and monitors standards. See also nurse practitioner.

Resection: Removal of all or part of an organ or other structure.

Residency: Postmedical school training program in a medical or surgical specialty, such as general surgery. Length of the training program varies by specialty.

Resident: Graduate of a medical school who is training in a medical or surgical specialty. Also called house staff.

Respirator: A machine that takes over breathing when a patient cannot breathe on his own or struggles to breathe. The machine pumps oxygen into the lungs through a tube in the windpipe. Also called ventilator.

Respiratory therapist: Person who is licensed to deal with patients' airways and breathing machines. Works with the nurses and physicians but cannot practice alone and cannot give intravenous medications. Can give inhalant medications with a physician order. Seen in an intensive care unit where patients are on breathing machines.

Rule out: Exclusion of a diagnosis. For example, "rule out appendicitis" means it is not clear if the patient has appendicitis. The rule out label disappears once the doctor makes the diagnosis.

Second opinion: Opinion from a second physician about the patient's diagnosis and recommended medical treatment.

Sedative: Medication that makes a patient calm, often sleepy. Procedures can be performed under sedation without agitating or hurting the patient, who will not remember having anything done.

Sinus: Space next to the nasal passage, which can become infected (sinusitis).

Social worker: Professional who works to enhance the social functioning of the patient and the patient's family. The hospital's clinical social worker may help with preadmission and discharge planning, give psychosocial or financial counseling, lead support groups, follow up with a patient after discharge, or connect the patient with community resources.

Speech therapist: Rehab professional who evaluates and treats patients who have problems swallowing, talking, or thinking.

Spinal anesthesia (epidural): Injection of local anesthesia (or morphine for pain control) into the back between the bones of the spine. May be used alone with the patient awake or sedated, or to supplement general anesthesia. Spinal anesthesia works well for pain control after an operation; in this case, the tube used to administer the anesthetic may be left in for a few days.

Spinal fusion: Joining together the vertebrae (the bony segments of the spine) above and below where a damaged disc (a "shock absorber" that cushions the vertebrae) was removed.

Steri-Strip: Brand name for a type of adhesive skin closure strip.

Steroid: Type of drug that reduces inflammation and swelling or increases low amounts of the male hormone testosterone. Anabolic (type of steroid) refers to muscle building.

Subspecialty: Specialized area within a medical or surgical specialty. Spine surgery, for example, is a subspecialty under orthopedic surgery.

surgical awareness: Unexpected awakening during a surgical procedure using general anesthesia (a rare occurrence).

Surgical intervention: Surgical treatment; surgical procedure.

Surgical site: Area of the body that is or was operated on.

Surgical-site infection: An infection of the surgical wound or any organ or body space entered during the operation.

Suture: Surgical stitch used to close an incision.

Teaching hospital: Hospital where, under the supervision of trained physicians, medical students learn to become physicians and where physicians train in their chosen specialty as surgical residents.

Thoracoscopy: See minimally invasive surgery.

Time-out: Surgical time-out refers to the final safety check in the operating room before the operation begins. Its purpose is to ensure the correct operation in the correct patient.

Tonsillectomy: Operation to remove the tonsils.

Topical anesthetic: Local anesthetic (numbing medicine) applied to the skin as an ointment or spray.

Triage: Process of deciding how urgent a condition is and how immediate treatment needs to be. Used in an emergency room.

Tumor: Lump or abnormal growth, which may be benign or malignant.

Ultrasound: Machine that generates sound waves which are bounced off internal organs and projected onto a screen as shadows. These can be used to check normal and diseased organs.

Urinary catheter: Tube inserted through a female patient's urinary tract into the bladder or attached to a male's penis. Used to collect urine into a bag.

Uterine: Refers to the uterus, or womb.

Vascular: Refers to blood vessels.

Veins: Blood vessels that carry the blood back to the heart. They contain blood without much oxygen and therefore look blue.

Ventilator: See respirator.

Vital organ: Organ in the body that is essential for life, such as the heart.

Vital signs: Physical signs that someone is alive, such as blood pressure, temperature, pulse, heartbeat, and breathing rate.

Wrong-site surgical procedure: An operation that is performed on the wrong side or area of a patient's body (a rare occurrence).

X ray: An invisible beam of energy that goes through flesh and produces images on a special screen.

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