Learn Basic Medical Terminology - What you Need to Know to Succeed

Here's the basic medical terminology you'll need to learn to become skilled and successful in medical coding (or any medical career)...

As a medical biller or medical coding specialist, you have to assign specific codes based on what the medical provider finds at the patient visit.

What this means is that the coder must be able to understand and interpret the provider's written progress notes from the visit, and translate them into the correct codes.

A good understanding of basic medical terminology helps you understand the doctor's notes more precisely - you're better able to assign the correct code to the patient's office visit.

This understanding is even more important in specialty medical fields. These may require an in-depth understanding of medical terminology and the need for a very specific diagnosis, like in oncology.

Basic medical terminology: root words, prefixes, and suffixes

Learn medical terminology

Medical terms generally have 3 parts:

  1. Roots
  2. Prefixes
  3. Suffixes

When you put them all together, the three parts of the word create a more specific medical term. Some medical terms may have all three parts, whereas others might have only one or two.

Root Words are the part of the word that can stand alone as the main part of the medical term. It holds the fundamental meaning of the phrase. Sometimes, medical terms can have more than one root.

Here's a brief list of root words and their meanings:

Root Word Meaning
Cepahl/o head
Chrom color
Enter/o intestine
Derm/o skin
Gastr/o stomach
Hem/o, Hemat/o blood
My/o muscle
Myel/o spinal cord
Onych/o nail
Oste/o bone
Phag eat or swallow
Phleb/o vein
Pulm/o, Pulmon/o lungs
Synov/i synovial fluid, joint, or membrane
Thromb/o clot
Vas/o vessel or duct

Prefixes are typically attached to the beginning of words to modify their meanings. They usually specify the location, time, or number.

Here's a brief list of common prefixes and their meanings:

Prefix Meaning
A- without, absence of
Ab- away from
Ad- toward, near
Ante- before
Ec-, Ect/o- out, outside
End/o- in, within
Mon/o- one
Peri- surrounding
Poly- many, much
Post- after, behind
Trans- across, through
Supra- above

Suffixes are typically attached to the end of word, to change their meanings. They usually indicate the procedure, condition, disorder, or disease.

Here's a brief list of common suffixes and their meanings:

Suffix Meaning
-algia pain
-centesis puncture, tap
-desis binding, fusion
-ectomy excision, surgical removal
-emia blood
-graphy act of recording data
-pexy surgical fixation
-plasty plastic repair/surgery, reconstruction
-sclerosis hardening
-tripsy crushing
-uria urine, urination

Putting it all together (with examples)

By understanding the root words, prefixes and suffixes of medical terminology, you can put together the meaning of a medical term pretty easily. Examples:

You can break down the word rhinorrhea to understand its meaning.

Root word Meaning
Rhin/o- -nose

Suffix Meaning
-rrhea -flow, discharge

Using basic medical terminology, rhinorrhea means discharge from the nose - a runny nose.

You can also break down the word cardiomyopathy to figure out what it means.

Prefix Meaning
Cardi/o- heart

Root Word Meaning
My/o muscle

Suffix Meaning
-pathy disease

Cardiomyopathy is a diseased heart muscle.

A good tip when you're coding difficult medical terms is to always use a current medical dictionary. This will help you avoid any confusion with the roots, prefixes, or suffixes you come across. Here's an online one.

Anatomical positions and planes

A skeleton - learn medical terminology

Another part of being a good medical coder is an understanding the anatomical positions and planes that your doctor is referring to in his or her office visit notes.

Although they're used less often to define a medical term, these positional terms are sometimes important in specifying your diagnosis when you code.

The following is a brief list of anatomical planes and positions:

  • Anterior: toward the front of the body
  • Deep: closer to the center of the body
  • Distal: farther from the point off attachment or point of reference
  • Lateral: toward the side of the body
  • Posterior: toward the back of the body
  • Superficial: closer to the surface of the body

The position or plane of a medical term can make the correct code change drastically...

For example, a very general term is abdominal pain. But this code varies greatly.

Depending on the area of the pain, the severity, and the duration, the correct code for abdominal pain, acute, lower right quadrant, can be totally different from the general abdominal pain code.


Mucous membrane

Another important part of knowing your basic medical terminology is understanding the five types of membranes in the human body. Membranes line the internal organs, tubes that open to the outside of the body, and body cavities.

These terms will sometimes be important in assigning the correct diagnosis code:

  • Mucous Membranes: These membranes line the interior walls of human organs, as well as the lining of tubes that open to the outside of the body. They're in the digestive, respiratory, urinary, and reproductive systems.
  • Serous Membranes: These membranes line cavities inside the body, as well as internal organs like the heart.
  • Synovial Membranes: These membranes line the joint cavities and are made up of connective tissue. Their purpose is to lubricate the joint cavity so that bones can move more freely.
  • Meninges: These are composed of three connective tissue membranes, which serve as a protective covering. They are found lining the spinal cord and brain.
  • Cutaneous Membranes: This is the largest membrane in the human body. In other words: the skin! It covers the entire body.

If you're employed as a coder in a specialty field, such as oncology or dermatology, your understanding of medical terms and your ability to translate them into the correct diagnosis codes will be one of your best assets.

Being able to identify, define, and specify the many unique diagnosis codes, based on your understanding of basic medical terminology, is the best trait of a good medical coder.

As you gain more experience as a medical coder, determining the correct code will become easier and easier, until it's a very part of the way you go through your daily routine.

Also have a look at our medical billing glossary and a primer on the anatomy of the human body.

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