Medical Terminology Suffixes and Prefixes

Word parts such as prefixes and suffixes help define medical terms.
Word parts such as prefixes and suffixes help define medical terms. (Image: capsules image by Keith Frith from

Medical terminology represents the language of the health care industry. Made up of mostly Greek and Latin word parts, many of the same terms used in early days with Aristotle and Hippocrates exist today. Much like a foreign language, medical terminology requires study, review and memorization to fully understand it. However, the task is not as daunting as it may seem. Many medical terms break down into word parts, such as prefixes and suffixes, for ease of learning and understanding.

Understanding Word Parts

Although medical terms exist that require memorization of the full word and definition, smaller word parts make up a majority of the terms. Medical terminology word parts include word roots, or the base of the word, and prefixes (letter groups in front of a word) and suffixes (letter groups at the end of the word). Each word part represents a specific definition. When placed together, word parts create a medical term, with each word part working to define a medical term. For example, the medical term subhepatic breaks down into the word parts sub/hepat/ic. Sub- is the prefix meaning “below or under.” The word root hepat- means “liver” and the suffix -ic means “pertaining to.” Therefore, subhepatic means “pertaining to below the liver,” as defined by breaking down the word parts.


Prefixes exist at the beginning of medical terms and modify the meaning of the word root. However, many medical terms do not have a prefix. Do not automatically assume that prefixes make up word parts appearing at the beginning of a medical term. Medical terms without prefixes start with the word root.

Prefix Examples

Common prefixes for medical terminology include intra-, meaning “within,” and sub-, meaning “under.” The medical term intravenous breaks down into three different word parts: intra / ven / ous. In this case, the prefix intra- means “within”, the word root ven- means “vein,” and the suffix -ous means “pertaining to.” Therefore, intravenous means “pertaining to within the vein.”


Suffixes appear at the end of a medical term and, like prefixes, modify the meaning of the word. Most medical terms include a suffix.

Suffix Examples

Common suffixes include -itis, meaning “inflammation,” -ic, meaning “pertaining to” and -pathy, meaning “disease.” Sometimes, there are multiple suffixes that have the same meaning. For example, both -ic and -ous mean “pertaining to.” The medical terminology education process teaches when to use different suffixes using both memorization and an understanding of word parts.

Combining Vowels

Medical terminology also includes a word part called the “combining vowel.” Combining vowels, most often “o,” help ease pronunciation between a word root and the prefix or suffix. For example, in the term osteopathy, oste- is the word root, o is the combining vowel, and -pathy is the suffix.

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