The Language of Medicine

My neurologist was saying  that his young children are learning French and are able to carry on a conversation in the language even though they have barely begun their elementary years. It made me wish that I had learned another foreign language. Yes, I studied Spanish for three years, but have long forgotten how to use it other than ask where the bathroom is or order a cold beer.  Honestly, sometimes the cold beer comes out as a bean beer because there is a big difference between frio and frijoles.

As I thought about it, I realize I have become somewhat bilingual, being able to converse in some basic medical language. There is a tendency in medicine to use words that we won’t understand, the theory might be that the indecipherable words keeps the medical folks as the authorities. It’s no wonder then that this second language I have been slowly learning the past few years is taking a while to catch in my brain and I am regularly consulting Google for a definition, much like I will use TranslateGoogle to understand foreign words.

I had my one month follow-up with the urologist who did my bladder Botox treatment and was first seen by one of his student doctors.  I can only imagine the look on my face when he declared the surgeon had found chronic cystitis.  He said, but of course you knew that, right? To which I reminded him I was knocked out for the surgery, I didn’t see the doctor afterwards and had no idea what he was talking about but that I would go home and Google it to learn more.  My comment didn’t register with him and he proceeded to use many more large medical terms, leaving me to again look at him with the blank stare and taking notes to translate later.  I even told him I hadn’t a clue what he was saying, but he didn’t pause to explain.  Obviously he had Aced the class on using medical language to make the process mystical and beyond the comprehension of the typical patient and I was supposed to be impressed.

As soon as I had the opportunity, I looked up chronic cystitis, figuring I had some types of hideous growths in my bladder, only to learn it was something much less glamorous – it means chronic UTI’s.  Now why didn’t he just say that in English rather than in Medicinese?

Here are some of my favorite MS  language examples – and I’ll tell you right now that MS doesn’t stand for mighty simple -

Paresthesia sounds a bit like something that would float parachute-like or is found under the Eiffel Tower, but its neither of those.  Paresthesia should be called what they are – phantom feelings created by nerves misfiring, such as pins and needles or tingling.   At the very least this problem should be given a name that is easily pronounced.

Hyperintensities, particularly in the brain’s white matter, is a scary medical diagnosis on an MRI report.  The term makes me think of minute dancing orbs, unable to hold still like they are ramped up on too much coffee and sugar. In reality it just means there are tiny white spots on our brain, and often mean nothing other than we are getting older. The only term more worrisome than hyperintensity in MRI reports for the uninitiated who don’t speak the medical language, might be UBO’s (unidentified bright objects). This finding might confirm that I had been visited by the mothership and hauled off to space against my will and my brain was injected with UBO’s.  The real translation for UBO’s is - heck if I know what that is, but it’s probably not going to hurt you.

Lesion is another ominous, foreign word because it sounds like a growth that needs to be removed where it really means an erosion or damaged area.  Panic is the first emotion most people will feel when they hear they have lesions on their brain, which conjures up images of growths or tumors.  Our MS lesions are more like potholes waiting to be patched with new myelin. If only there was a way to translate lesion into something less ominous that doesn’t sound like cancer.

Finally, I offer armamentarium as an example of a favorite word of neurologists. This fancy word must have been on their final board exam because I think every last neurologist who I have heard speak publicly uses armamentarium at some point in their talk.  For example, the doctor might say the introduction of the latest oral drug adds one more item to the armamentarium.  Now why can’t they just say it’s one more thing in their toolbox or bag of tricks? I have to wonder if those same doctors remember how to spell armamentarium.

I would love to know what foreign medical words you would add to my dictionary for an easier translation.

Wishing you well,


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