Medical Terms

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Common Terms

Broken, Busted, Fractured & Cracked

You've sustained an injury and seen the doctor, when you leave the doctor's office you forget the diagnosis.  The doctor was communicating well with you until the 14 syllable words started coming.  Most medical terminology has its roots in the Greek and Latin languages. These languages are easy to understand if you know them.  (Some common terms used in medicine can be found in the table at the end of this article.) 

 This often leaves people dazed and confused. The media does not help matters by reporting a specific injury to an athlete in differing terms. The local paper may say that the star player has a sprained knee while USA Today calls it a strained or twisted knee. The bottom line is that all medical terms are not synonymous, but may lay terms are synonymous with medical terms.

The terms broken, busted, fractured, and cracked all refer to the same thing, a broken bone. When an x-ray is taken it is to rule out a bone break, very few other things can be seen on x-ray. If the doctor says that you fractured a metacarpal, this means that you broke a bone in your hand. The physician may decide that the fracture due to its specific type or severity does or does not need surgery, which does not mean that it is more or less broken.

Sprain v Strain

This brings us to another confusing set of medical terms: sprains and strains. These terms are often used interchangeably. A SPRAIN is an injury to the ligaments of a joint. A STRAIN is an injury to a muscle or tendon. A knee can be sprained but not strained. The muscles and tendons which cross the knee can be strained, however. Both terms have various levels of injury. 

Doctors and Athletic Trainers will grade these two injuries as mild, moderate, or severe (or Grade I, II, or III). All involve some tearing of the tissue in varying levels. 


  • Mild (Grade I)               = microscopic tearing of muscle or ligament
  • Moderate (Grade II)     = larger portion of muscle torn
  • Severe (Grade III)        = 80 to 100% of the tissue torn

A severe strain or sprain is often referred to a a rupture of the tissue. When dealing with strained muscles many athletes will say "its just a pull, not a strain." These two words mean the same thing a strain IS a pull.

Other Common Terms

Other common terms in sports medicine have the suffix "-itis" or "-osis." The suffix "-itis" simply means inflammation of.  For example, tendinitis is swelling of a tendon. The sufix "-osis" refers to any abnormality. An example of this is arthrosis, this is an abnormality of a joint. The first part of the word, "arthro" is the Greek work for joint.  An example of this that strikes fear into everyone's heart is arthritis. When we hear arthritis, we think of the old and deformed neighbor or grandmother. This type of arthritis is called rheumatoid arthritis and does not affect many people. While, almost everyone will be affected by osteoarthritis at one time or another. This term is Greek, with the prefix "osteo-" meaning bone, the root "arthro: meaning joint, and the suffix "-itis" meaning inflammation of. Put them all together and you get swellinf of a bone's joint. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative change of the joint due to the normal wear and tear of daily living. The tires on our cars wear out after a few thousand miles; so do our joints.

There may be a rare instance when a physician notices a lump, growth, or tumor. This does not mean that the patient has cancer. The majority of growths or tumors are not cancerous. A tumor is defined in Dorland's Medical Dictionary as "swelling, one of the cardinal sighs of inflammation" or "a new growth of tissue in which cell multiplication is uncontrolled and progressive." Cancerous tumors are a small portion of the tumor category. But, any unusual lump needs to be evaluated by a physician to determine if it is a potential problem.

Surgery leads to many misconceptions, especially in orthopaedics. Many knee, ankle, shoulder, and elbow surgeries are being performed with the arthroscope. This is a device used to assist the surgeon in performing a less invasive surgery. The Greek breakdown of the word is "arthro-" (joint) and "-scopy" (examination of). The arthroscope, or scope, is the ultimate diagnostic tool. The physician can look in the knee, find the damaged tissue, and repair or remove it.

The arthroscope has helped decrease recovery times associated with orthopaedic surgeries. but, there is no such thing as an "overnight recovery." The body still has to heal from the damage of the injury and the damage caused by surgery. We read every every day about the pro football player who returned to the game two weeks after a knee scope. This is not normal, most people require four to six weeks to recover. Remember that if a pro athlete is being paid $1 or more million to play, he is expected to be back on the field as soon as possible. One other thing that is not mentioned is that he will play the rest of the season at less than 100%, and will not be fully recovered until after the season is complete. Many times these athletes must have their knee drained after each game.

The use of lasers in orthopaedic surgeries is a rare event. Laser surgery is still being developed and, if done, may be experimental. The Federal Drug Administration has not approved lasers for general use in orthopaedic surgery wit the exception of approved studies. The hospital and physician must be certified to use them. The laser is developing as a tool, much like a scalpel or scissors, and is used in this fashion.

Another area of confusion involves crush injuries or contusions. Simply, a contusion is a bruise. A contusion results when an object forcefully strikes the body, such as a football helmet hitting a thigh. The helmet crushes the quadriceps muscle on the femur (thigh bone) disrupting the cells of the muscle. The result of the blow is swelling, discoloration, muscle tightness (a protective mechanism to prevent further damage), pain, and heat. The severity of the contusion (bruise) is proportional to the force of impact. 

Long bouts of exercise in the heat can produce muscle cramps. Do not confuse this with muscle spasms. Cramps occur due to a water and electrolyte imbalance within the muscle that is due to water loss while sweating. Spasms are usually due to an injury - the muscle gradually tightens to protect the injured site. After a prolonged bout of muscle cramps, the muscle may spasm. This is due to the damage that the exercise and resulting cramps have caused in the muscle. Both are painful conditions but have separate causes.

medical terminology is confusing due to its Greek and Latin origins. If you take a little time to listen to the doctor and then ask him or her to explain in English what he just said, you can avoid the confusion of medical terminology. Also, remember that what you read or hear in the media may not be the entire truth. News reporters make the same mistakes that we all do.

Continue to a table of common medical terms

On-Line Medical Dictionary



2000 - 2009 David Edell

Information on this site is not a substitute for physician directed care.

Please consult your personal physician for more detailed information

concerning specific injuries or illnesses.

Last Update for 10/24/2009 12:09:35 AM