Common Medical Terminology Used by Nurses

needle, pills, and the words medical terminology
Written by
Calvin Henninger
October 8, 2023

Table of Contents

Ostomy. PO. Osis. In healthcare, understanding common medical terms can often significantly affect patient care and sometimes even be a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, the primary languages used in medicine are Greek and Latin, "dead" languages most people are unfamiliar with. 

So, what does all this terminology mean? This article will cover common medical terms nurses and other healthcare professionals should be familiar with to communicate clearly and provide the best patient care.

What Basic Medical Terminology Should Healthcare Workers Know?

Healthcare workers should be familiar with basic medical terms to communicate and provide care effectively.  

Among the most important words to be familiar with are those related to anatomy and physiology. 

These are terms related to the body's structure and functions, such as "cells," "tissues," "organs," and "systems," as well as more specific terms, such as the names of the organs and tissues themselves. 

In addition to knowing what is causing issues, knowing where the problems are is equally important. Understanding anatomical directions like "anterior" (front), "posterior" (back), "superior" (above), and "inferior" (below) allows for a clear and detailed description in documentation and communication with other nurses and healthcare providers.

However, comprehending what and where a medical issue is in a patient's body is only the first step in their medical care. 

After assessing a patient, a diagnosis is given, and treatment can begin. Understanding basic terms like "diagnosis," "symptom," "treatment," "medication," "surgery," and "therapy" is essential to be able to communicate options and next steps, both to the patient and other healthcare providers. 

Streamlining the Healthcare Process

In addition to the basic terms, knowing the names of common conditions and medical procedures and defining them for a patient will also streamline the care process. 

Knowing and understanding terms for medical procedures like "biopsy," "radiology," "ultrasound," "endoscopy," and "electrocardiogram," as well as any abbreviations or acronyms, can save time and possibly a life.

It is for this very reason that abbreviations and acronyms are commonplace in medicine and, therefore, incredibly important to know. 

Nurses and healthcare providers must be familiar with common abbreviations like "BP" (blood pressure), "HR" (heart rate), "MRI" (magnetic resonance imaging), and "OT" (occupational therapy) as they are used not only as shorthand on charts but in verbal communication as well.

In short, effective communication is crucial in healthcare, so knowing how to use these standard medical terms in the healthcare setting allows providers to quickly read charts, understand a patient's condition, and communicate said condition to other providers. 

What Are Some Common Medical Terms All Nurses Should Know?

While we've covered a range of general terms that healthcare workers should know and understand, there are more advanced terms and an array of suffixes and prefixes that are particularly important to nurses and higher-level providers. 

Nurses play a vital role in patient care, and being well-versed in specific and sometimes complex medical language is essential for the best patient outcomes.  

In medicine (and most scientific fields), the use of Greek and Latin is nearly universal. This prevalence doesn't mean nurses must be fluent in these ancient languages—not many people are.

But a basic understanding of commonly used prefixes (the beginning of a word), roots (the main part of the word), and suffixes (the end of the word) can help healthcare providers make sense of unfamiliar words and develop a deeper understanding of words they are already familiar with. And even if you learned these terms in nursing school, a quick refresher may be helpful!

These terms help nurses effectively communicate with colleagues, patients, and other healthcare professionals, ensuring accurate assessments, care, and documentation.

The Significance of Medical Terminology for Nurses

Medical terminology is a specialized type of vocabulary that encompasses words, phrases, and abbreviations specific to the healthcare field. This terminology is critical for nurses' daily responsibilities, including documenting patient information, interpreting medical charts, and administering treatments. 

Decoding Common Medical Prefixes and Suffixes

Before delving into specific medical terms, it's essential to understand common prefixes and suffixes that provide valuable insights into the meaning of words. 

For instance, the "epi-" medical term typically denotes "on," "upon," or "above." It's often used to describe conditions or anatomical structures located on the surface, such as the "epidermis," the outermost layer of the skin. 

Finally, the "osis" medical term, commonly found in the word "diagnosis," denotes a condition, process, or status, referring to normalcy or disease. In other words, diagnosis means "the process of determining the nature of a disease or disorder and distinguishing it from other possible conditions."

What Does PO Mean in Medical Terms?

"PO" typically stands for "per os," a Latin term that translates to "by mouth." In medical terminology, it refers to administering medications or substances orally. 

For instance, when a nurse instructs a patient to take a medication, "PO," it means the patient should swallow it. Proper clarification of such terms ensures that patients follow instructions correctly, enhancing treatment efficacy.

Understanding "Emesis" and "Emetic"

As a medical term, "emesis" refers to vomiting or expelling stomach contents through the mouth. It is a vital term for nurses to understand, as it indicates a specific symptom that can provide valuable diagnostic information. 

There are many medical reasons that emesis may occur, including the following:


Morning sickness, a common early pregnancy symptom, can cause women to experience bouts of emesis due to hormonal changes and increased sensitivity to certain odors or foods.

Food Poisoning

Ingesting contaminated or spoiled food can lead to food poisoning, which often results in nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea as the body attempts to eliminate the harmful substances.

Medication Side Effects

Some medications, especially those that affect the gastrointestinal system or have a strong taste, can cause patients to feel nauseous and vomit. In other cases, multiple medications can "clash" with one another, causing vomiting and other alarming side effects.

Digestive Disorders

Conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcers, and other gastrointestinal disorders can cause nausea and vomiting, especially during flare-ups.

Nurses must assess patients experiencing emesis and identify the underlying cause to provide appropriate interventions and treatment. Depending on the cause, patients may require hydration, antiemetic medications, dietary modifications, or further medical evaluation.

On the other hand, an "emetic" is a substance that induces vomiting and is often used in cases of accidental ingestion of toxic substances. A nurse may administer an emetic to prevent an ingested substance from causing more harm to the patient.

Exploring "Ostomy"

The term "ostomy" refers to a surgical procedure in which an opening is created in the body to allow the discharge of waste materials. This procedure often involves creating a stoma (artificial opening) in the abdominal wall to eliminate urine or feces. 

Nurses are crucial in caring for ostomy patients, ensuring proper hygiene, managing stoma-related complications, and providing emotional support.

Unpacking "Peri-" and "Ante-"

The prefix "peri-" denotes "around" or "surrounding." 

For instance, "pericardium" refers to the membranous sac surrounding the heart. This prefix is essential for understanding anatomical relationships and structures. 

On the other hand, the medical term "ante-" means "before" or "preceding." An example is "anteversion," which describes the forward tilting of an organ or body part. These prefixes offer insights into various medical terms, allowing nurses to interpret them accurately.

Deciphering "Hematology" and the Role of "Emia" in Medical Terms

"Hematology" is the branch of medicine that focuses on studying blood, blood-forming tissues, and blood disorders. 

Understanding basic hematological terms is important for nurses in various clinical settings to assist with blood transfusions and blood tests and monitor patients with hematological conditions such as anemia or leukemia. This knowledge contributes to accurate assessments and effective patient care.

A common suffix often encountered in hematological terms is "emia." This suffix refers to the presence of a substance in the blood. 

For instance, "anemia" indicates a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood, reducing oxygen-carrying capacity. "Hypercalcemia" signifies an elevated level of calcium in the blood, which can have implications for various bodily functions. 

Significance of "Hypo" and "Hyper" in Diagnosis and Treatment

The prefixes "hypo" and "hyper" are crucial components of medical language, indicating states of deficiency or excess. 

These prefixes hold great significance in diagnosis, treatment, and patient care. Understanding their implications gives nurses and the extended healthcare team a clear sign of the underlying conditions a patient may be experiencing. 

Observing high levels of a substance in the patient's body is a clear indicator of the most effective diagnosis and treatment path for that patient.


The prefix "hypo" originates from the Greek word meaning "under" or "less than normal." In medical terms, "hypo" denotes a deficiency or a lower-than-normal level of a certain substance or function within the body. 

For instance, "hypoglycemia" refers to abnormally low blood sugar levels. Nurses encounter this term when managing patients with diabetes who may experience symptoms like dizziness and confusion due to inadequate glucose levels.


Conversely, the prefix "hyper" signifies "excessive" or "above normal." 

This prefix describes a condition in which a substance or function within the body is elevated beyond the typical range. For example, "hyperthyroidism" refers to an overactive thyroid gland that produces an excess of thyroid hormones. 

Nurses caring for patients with hyperthyroidism may observe symptoms like rapid heartbeat, weight loss, and increased sensitivity to heat. 

Diagnosis and Treatment Implications

The significance of "hypo" and "hyper" extends to diagnosis and treatment decisions. Medical professionals rely on these prefixes to pinpoint irregularities and determine appropriate interventions. 

In many cases, diagnostic tests are employed to quantify levels of specific substances, such as blood glucose or thyroid hormones, to confirm whether "hypo" or "hyper" conditions exist.

Treatment strategies vary depending on whether the prefix "hypo" or "hyper" is involved. 

For instance, in cases of "hypertension" (high blood pressure), treatment may involve lifestyle modifications, medication, or a combination of both to bring blood pressure within a healthy range. 

On the other hand, managing "hypotension" (low blood pressure) may require interventions to improve fluid and electrolyte balance, enhance blood volume, or address underlying causes.

Taking a Look at "Osteo"

The prefix "osteo" derives from the Greek word "bone." In the medical field, "osteo" is widely used to refer to elements related to bones or skeletal structures. 

This prefix is often used by nurses and other healthcare workers—particularly those involved in the operating room (OR)—and provides insight into conditions, procedures, and assessments related to the skeletal system. Here are a few examples of its application:

  • Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is characterized by decreased bone density and increased susceptibility to fractures. It is prevalent in older patients. Understanding this term allows nurses to provide appropriate education and care for patients at risk of bone fragility.
  • Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that primarily affects the cartilage between bones, leading to pain and stiffness. Nurses who grasp this term can contribute to pain management strategies and patient education on joint health.
  • Osteotomy: An osteotomy is a surgical procedure involving the cutting of bone. Nurses play a role in caring for patients before and after osteotomies, ensuring proper healing and management of potential complications.
  • Osteogenesis: Osteogenesis refers to the formation of bone tissue. Understanding this term is essential for nurses to assist patients with fractures, as osteogenesis is a key function in the healing process.

Understanding "Itis"

The suffix "itis" stems from ancient Greek (for "inflammation") and is one of the most commonly encountered elements in medical terminology. For nurses, grasping the significance of "itis" is essential, as inflammation has become an increasingly common symptom of various conditions in recent years.

Inflammation is the body's natural response to injury, infection, or harmful stimuli. It involves a complex cascade of immune responses to repair tissue damage and eliminate pathogens. While inflammation is a protective mechanism, chronic or uncontrolled inflammation can contribute to the development of various diseases.

The presence of "itis" in a medical term typically indicates that a specific area of the body is affected by inflammation. Here are a few examples of "itis" terminology that nurses may encounter:

  • Gastritis: Gastritis refers to the inflammation of the stomach lining. Nurses should know this term when caring for patients with abdominal pain, nausea, and indigestion.
  • Bronchitis: Bronchitis involves inflammation of the bronchial tubes, often leading to coughing, chest discomfort, and difficulty breathing. Nurses play a role in providing care to patients with bronchitis, particularly in managing symptoms and promoting airway clearance.
  • Arthritis: Arthritis denotes inflammation of the joints. Nurses who understand this term can assist in managing patients with arthritis by providing education on pain management, joint protection, and medication administration.
  • Dermatitis: Dermatitis refers to skin inflammation, leading to symptoms such as redness, itching, and rash. Nurses encounter this term when assessing and caring for patients with skin conditions.

Enhancing Nurse-Patient Communication

Mastering medical terminology enhances nurse-patient communication. When nurses can explain medical conditions, procedures, and treatments using familiar terms, patients better understand their health status. 

Effective communication fosters trust between patients and nurses, empowering patients to actively participate in their care decisions.

Medical terms serve as a universal language that bridges gaps in healthcare communication. For nurses, proficiency in medical terms is an indispensable skill that contributes to patient safety, accurate documentation, and collaboration with colleagues. 

By understanding prefixes, suffixes, and specific terms like "PO," "emesis," "ostomy," "peri-," and "ante-," nurses can navigate the complex world of healthcare terminology with confidence. This knowledge ultimately translates into better patient care and improved healthcare outcomes, highlighting the essential role that medical terminology plays in the nursing profession.

At Nursa, we're dedicated to providing nurses with various nursing resources and content. Whether that means learning more about common medical terminology or finding per diem jobs, we're here for you. Sign up today.

Blog published on:
October 8, 2023

Calvin is a contributing copywriter at Nursa who specializes in nursing content centered around healthcare technology for both facilities and clinicians, medical terminology, and current events.

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