Thursday, May 10, 2012

Word Nerd: Medical Edition

I've written before about my lifetime of logophilia--that is, love of words. I collect unusual or appealing words the way some people do stamps or butterflies. Running across a new word gives me a little zing of satisfaction. My most recent acquisition is stertorous, meaning noisy or labored, particularly when referring to breathing, not to be confused with stentorious, which means loud or booming and is generally used to describe a person's voice. As you can probably imagine, medical school has offered numerous opportunities for vocabulary building.
Ever wondered why it sounds like your physician is speaking a different language? It's because they probably are--most medical terminology has its basis in Latin (and in some cases Greek), because back in the day Latin was the lingua franca of hoity-toity, educated types. Knowing that and knowing some basic Latin root words makes it easier to decipher what the white coats are going on about. So let's say you have diabetes mellitus and you go to your doctor. You get your blood sugar tested while you're there and it's 300. The nurse throws out the word "hyperglycemia." What to the who? Hyper is from a root meaning 'above/more,' (as in words like hyperactive); glyc- is from the Greek glukus, meaning 'sweet,' as in glucose; and emia is a form of 'hemia,' Greek for blood, that is used in making compound words. Hyperglycemia, then, is a twenty dollar word for "You have too much sugar in your blood." Which, being a diabetic and all, you probably knew already. Just knowing 'emia' gives you a jump on lots of disorders. Acidemia? Acidic blood. Hypernatremia? The only thing that's changed is a substitution of 'natr' (Latin for sodium--Na, remember?) for 'glyc', giving us a working definition of "There's too much sodium in your blood."
Another variation on this theme is to construct verbose diagnoses that in effect offer no more information than a list of the symptoms themselves might. For instance, someone who sleeps way too much, but after many rounds of testing is revealed to be otherwise healthy, with no mental or physical health problems accounting for the sleepiness? Idiopathic hypersomnia, with idiopathic being medical jargon for "shit, we don't know," and 'somnia' relating to sleep (we covered 'hyper' before). Does the diagnosis tell you anything you didn't know before? Nope. Does it sound a lot better than "You sleep a lot and we have no freaking clue why?" Yes. Yes it does.

Other favorite medical words include:
Anosognosia- Part of both the psychiatrist's and the neurologist's vocabulary, this word refers to a patient's unawareness of their illness. Examples would include a schizophrenic who is convinced the world really IS out to get him and thus disregards efforts to get him to take medicine/obtain further treatment (why should he be treated, after all, if he's not sick?). In neurology, a patient might be paralyzed on the right side of her body but insist that she has no deficit or difficulty in moving.

Borborygmi- a borderline-onomatopoeic word for that rumbling sound that results from gas and fluid moving around in your intestines. Cool, no?

Coryza- a word that basically encompasses the symptoms of a head cold, with a runny, stuffy, inflamed nose. Love that y-z combination: this would be a great Scrabble word.

Echolalia- a word from the field of psychiatry (though sometimes found in neurology as well). A patient with echolalia--usually schizophrenic--repeats the words he or she hears, just like  your annoying little brother did when you were growing up. For example: "How are you today?" "Are you today? Are you today? Are you today?" When a patient copies the movements of others, it's called echopraxia. Keep in mind, though, that patients aren't doing this to be annoying or to make fun of anyone; it's just a bizarre symptom of their disease.


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