Medical-ese! Breaking it Down

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Between countless books, newspaper articles, television ads and the Internet, we are bombarded with medical terms and procedures. What does it all mean? Let’s look at some commonly used terms you might hear from your doctor or other sources.

You may hear your doctor speak of a “chronic” condition. What exactly does that mean? If you have a chronic health condition, you have a problem that may not go away over time. Heart disease, asthma, arthritis and diabetes are just a few of the conditions that are considered “chronic.” Chronic conditions come on gradually and have a long duration. Right now, these conditions have no known cure. But you can take an active role in managing your health.

On the other hand, you may be told your condition is “acute.” In a way, acute is the opposite of chronic in that symptoms usually come on without warning and can be relieved. Acute conditions come on suddenly and have a short duration. For instance, bronchitis can be “acute” or “chronic.” Acute means the condition comes on quickly and goes away in a short time. Chronic means a condition lasts a long time and often comes back.

Cholesterol is a term we hear a lot. Is it bad? What is it? Cholesterol in itself is not bad. Your body needs cholesterol to work properly. However when you have extra cholesterol in your blood, it builds up inside the walls of your arteries (blood vessels), including the ones that go to your heart. This buildup is called plaque. Plaque narrows your arteries and slows or stops the blood flow. This can cause a heart attack, stroke, or other serious heart disease. So, having your cholesterol checked regularly is important.

When the nurse wraps that cuff around your arm exactly what’s going on? He/she is checking your blood pressure, which is the impact of blood pushing against the artery walls as the heart pumps blood. Blood pressure is measured in two numbers – systolic and diastolic. Systolic is the pressure when the heart is beating. Diastolic is the pressure when the heart is at rest. Blood pressure is usually displayed with the systolic number on top and the diastolic number below. Knowing your blood pressure number is important.

Sometimes your doctor may order a CBC. This stands for complete blood count. Essentially this test is looking for infection, disorders and other conditions. It’s a simple, common test.

Sometimes your doctor may order a CAT scan. CAT stands for computed axial tomography. You will be asked to lie on a narrow table that slides into the center of the CT scanner. Once you are inside the scanner, the machine's x-ray beam rotates around you. Depending on the type of scan and what they are looking for, you may receive contrast dye to help enhance the images. This is given through a vein in your arm. A CT rapidly creates detailed pictures of the body, including the brain, chest, spine, and abdomen. The test may be used to:

  • Guide a surgeon to the right area during a biopsy
  • Identify masses and tumors, including cancer
  • Study blood vessels

Another non-invasive way to take pictures of your body is an MRI, magnetic resonance imaging. Unlike x-rays and CAT scans, which use radiation, MRI uses powerful magnets and radio waves. The MRI scanner contains the magnet. The magnetic field produced by an MRI is about 10 thousand times greater than the earth's. The magnetic field forces hydrogen atoms in the body to line up in a certain way (similar to how the needle on a compass moves when you hold it near a magnet). Different types of tissues send back different signals. Single MRI images are called slices. The images can be stored on a computer or printed on film. One exam produces dozens or sometimes hundreds of images.

We hope you found this helpful in better understanding medical terms that are often used. If you ever have any questions regarding any terms that are used, do not hesitate and speak to your health care provider about it.

Find Your Perfect Match

Answer a few questions and we'll provide you with a list of primary care providers that best fit your needs.

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