A Word a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: January

12 Jan, 2024 | Medicine, University Preparation

Doctors, nurses and surgeons have the vital task of communicating with patients and families, informing them about diagnoses and treatment options, and answering any questions that may arise. 

For this reason, medical professionals need to pay extra attention when using medical terminology, making sure that patients and their families understand what’s being said. This is essential in ensuring patient safety, gaining informed and valid consent, and avoiding unnecessary stress and anxiety. 

Having said that, a sound understanding of medical terminology is still fundamental for a range of healthcare professions. Medical lingo greatly improves communication between practitioners, standardises practice, and ultimately ensures greater quality of care.

January: Anatomy and Physiology

Kicking us off, January’s focus is the structure and function of the human body, from anatomical parts to physiological processes! 

Anatomy and Physiology

1st January: Epidermis

The epidermis is the outermost layer of the skin. As “epi” means “outside” and “dermis” means “skin”, when combined, this word means “outside skin”. 

The skin is a very complex organ composed of many layers, including the epidermis, the dermis, and subcutaneous tissue. The epidermis is further divided into sub-layers, namely stratum basale, spinosum, granulosum, lucidum and corneum

“Stratum” means “layer”, and each of these strata have different functions like sensation, secretion and protection.

2nd January: Femur

The femur is the strongest and longest bone in the body, stretching from the hip to the knee. It has the fundamental function of supporting the trunk on the legs. 

The head of the femur forms a ball-and-socket joint with the hip, which often fractures in elderly people or people affected by osteoporosis. This requires surgical intervention to replace the head of the femur with an artificial ball-and-socket. 

Sometimes, hip surgery can be performed before the joint fractures, if the joint space is reduced and painful. 

3rd January: Spleen

Medical tradition associates the word “spleenwith affliction, malaise and melancholy. Yet, there’s nothing dramatic about the spleen; it’s just a fist-sized lymph node, sitting in the left upper abdomen, filtering blood. 

A damaged (or surgically removed) spleen can, however, be quite upsetting for the body, as the spleen, being lymphatic tissue, plays a central role in immunological response. Damage to the spleen can result in catastrophic intra-abdominal haemorrhage, and removal leads to an increased susceptibility to infection.

4th January: Cerebellum

Cerebellum means “little brain”, and is essentially a miniature version of the brain (also known as the cerebrum). It has two lobes, a cortex, and a deep matter

The cerebellum is extremely important. It regulates motor control and coordination, but also cognition, behaviour and emotions. You can think of the brain as the initiator of movement and emotion, and the cerebellum as the fine-tuner of these.

5th January: Alveoli

The alveoli are the deepest structure of the lungs, where the gaseous exchange happens. Here, oxygen is exchanged for carbon dioxide.

The alveoli can be thought of as a bunch of grapes, with each grape being an alveolus. They are easily damaged by chemicals like those in cigarette smoke. 

6th January: Endocardium

Endocardiumis a composite word: “endo” means “inside” and “cardium” means “heart”. The endocardium is the innermost layer of tissue that lines the chambers and valves of the heart. 

It has many important functions: transmitting the wiring that keeps the heart beating, ensuring the laminar flow of the blood (as opposed to turbulent flow which can cause clots to form), and separating the blood from the heart muscle. 

Endocarditis is an extremely serious problem that can be due to infection, or other causes, such as autoimmune conditions.

7th January: Parietal lobe

The parietal lobe is one of six lobes that compose the cerebrum (along with the temporal, frontal, occipital, limbic and insular lobes). 

The cerebrum is divided into two hemispheres that symmetrically contain lobes. The parietal lobe is predominantly involved with processing sensory information and language. 

Proprioception (the sensation of position in space) and mechanoreception (the sensation of mechanical pressure) are both processed in the parietal lobe. 

8th January: Brachial artery

In Latin, “brachium” means “arm”, and the brachial artery is the main vessel of the upper limb. It can be palpated in the antecubital fossa (the depression anterior to the elbow), and it splits into the radial and the ulnar arteries. 

The brachial pulse is one of the most important peripheral pulses to feel for, along with the radial pulse at the wrist and the foot pulses.

9th January: Supraspinatus

The supraspinatus is a muscle that stabilises the shoulder joint, and is a part of the rotator cuff muscle group. 

The name of this muscle precisely identifies its location. “Supra” means “above” in Latin, and this muscle is located above the spine of the scapula, which is the bony protuberance you can feel in your upper back.

10th January: Myelin sheath

The myelin sheath is a thin layer of fat that insulates neurons. You can think of myelin as the plastic coating that wraps electric cables. 

It has the fundamental function of preventing the dispersion of electricity within the neurons, therefore speeding up transmission. 

11th January: Nephron

The nephron is the function unit of the kidney – where all the action happens! It’s a little tangled ball of capillaries that filters the blood, pushing toxic substances into the urine. 

The nephron is connected to a long and wavy tubule that takes the urine away from the blood into the ureter, and ultimately to the bladder

12th January: Eustachian tube

You might not know exactly what the Eustachian tube is, but I promise you’ve certainly felt it before! The Eustachian tube connects the ear to the nasal cavity, and it’s involved in keeping the pressure balanced between the inside of the ear and the outside world. 

You know that unpleasant sensation of fullness in your ear when you’re on a plane? That’s the Eustachian tube trying to work out the right pressure to maintain.

13th January: Zygomatic bone

The zygomatic bone might be a big phrase, but it’s actually just your cheekbone. This bone is one of the 14 facial bones that assemble to make up your face. 

Fun fact about the zygomatic bone: it cannot move! 

14th January: Ulna

“Olena” means “elbow”, so it’s no surprise the ulna is the bone that stretches from the elbow (making up the elbow protuberance) to the wrist. The ulna runs parallel to the radius, the other bone of the forearm. In general, the ulna provides stability to the wrist, whereas the radius acts as the pivot point. 

Ulnar fractures are sometimes referred to as “nightstick fractures”. The name comes from the idea that a suspect struck by a police baton would use their forearm to protect their head, and injure their ulna in the process.

15th January: Occipital bone

The occipital bone is the cranial bone that you can feel at the back of your head, just above your neck. 

It has the fundamental function of protecting the cerebellum, the occipital lobe of the brain, and the brain stem. It’s a thick bone, and understandably so, given its importance in protecting three of the most important components of the nervous system.

16th January: Pericardium

The pericardium is a fibrous layer of tissue, a sac that encloses the heart, keeping it stable and preventing over-expansion. 

Inflammation of the pericardium (pericarditis) is a serious condition, usually resulting from infection or autoimmune conditions, leading to sharp chest pain that fluctuates with breathing.

17th January: Thyroid gland

The thyroid is a small gland attached to the front of the windpipe, shaped like a butterfly, and composed of two main lobes connected by a thin stretch of tissue. 

The thyroid gland produces thyroid hormones, which are important positive regulators of metabolism

18th January: Dura mater

The dura is the thickest and strongest of the layers that enclose the brain. It’s found just underneath the bone itself. Under the dura is the arachnoid mater, and under that, is the pia mater

These three layers collectively compose the brain meninges: tough membranes that protect the cerebrum and spinal cord

19th January: Coronary artery

The word “coronary” comes from the Greek meaning “crown”. The coronaries are the arteries that supply the heart muscle with oxygenated blood. 

They stem out of the aorta and wrap around the heart like a crown. You do need some imagination, but if you close your eyes, you can just about picture it!

20th January: Pancreatic duct

The pancreatic duct runs from one end of the pancreas to the other, towards the small intestine (the duodenum in particular). 

On its way, it collects the pancreatic juices which will ultimately be released into the intestines. Pancreatic enzymes are important in the digestion process.

21st January: Clavicle

The clavicle is the collarbone that connects the shoulder to the breastbone. It has the fundamental function of keeping the shoulder girdle in place. 

You can feel your clavicle at the base of your neck, if you run your hand to the side.

22nd January: Mastoid process

The mastoid process is a bony protuberance found behind the ear lobe. 

It serves as a point of attachment for the sternocleidomastoid muscle, and contains many air cells that drain the middle ear – it can also get painfully infected at times! 

23rd January: Cerebral cortex

The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain. It’s divided into columns and microcolumns, each with a different function. 

Different areas of the cortex are concerned with different areas of higher functions like cognition, movement, language and emotion. The science behind the functioning of the cerebral cortex is still imprecise. 

24th January: Inferior vena cava

Venous capillaries increase in size as they get closer to the heart, where they can then be called veins. Veins spill their blood inside the atria, which means “entry hall” in Latin. 

Capillaries that come from the lower half of the body ultimately pool into the inferior vena cava, a large vein that drains deoxygenated blood from the lower extremities into the right atrium

25th January: Quadriceps

The quadriceps are a group of four individual muscles (hence the name “four heads”). The individual muscles are the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris

This very powerful muscle group is responsible for stabilising and extending the knee joint.

26th January: Submandibular gland

The submandibular glands are the two areas underneath your jaw that tickle when you’re hungry and catch sight of food. They’re responsible for producing saliva

They can also swell up and be quite painful! This can happen for all sorts of reasons, ranging from mumps to rarer conditions, infections and cysts.

27th January: Sternocleidomastoid

The word “sternocleidomastoid” is certainly a mouthful, but it can be broken down into three smaller words to give us the attachment points of this muscle: the sternum (breastbone), cleido (which stands for clavicle or collar bone), and mastoid (which is the bony protuberance behind your ears). 

This muscle is responsible for tilting the head side-to-side and flexing the neck.

28th January: Aorta

The aorta is one of the most important structures in the body. It’s the main artery that stems from the left ventricle and branches off into other major arteries, including the carotid, subclavian and coronaries. 

The aorta is large, measuring approximately 30cm, with a diameter of 3cm. It needs to be very strong as it receives highly pressurised blood from the heart. 

29th January: Choroid

The choroid (meaning “vascular layer”) is the capillary bed that coats the eye and provides blood supply to the eyeball, lying between the retina and the sclera

30th January: Diaphragm

The diaphragm is one of the main regulators of respiration. Its contraction creates a vacuum inside the chest, leading to lung expansion, and its relaxation helps push the air out of the lungs. 

The diaphragm sits between the chest and the abdomen, and is innervated by the phrenic nerve

31st January: Patella

The patella is a sesamoid bone, which means it isn’t attached to any other bones. Instead, it’s suspended by tendons and does not articulate (touch surface) with any other bone. 

The patella is also known as the kneecap, attached to the quadriceps tendon above and the patellar tendon below. Its main function is the protection of the knee joint. 

How many of these terms were new to you? Make sure to check back in next month so you can continue expanding your medical vocabulary!


By Diego Balassini

Diego is a practicing junior doctor, having graduated from Cambridge University, and Barts and The London School of Medicine. His undergraduate thesis focused on cancer biology and therapeutics. He is planning a career in reconstructive and plastic surgery, hoping to draw together innovations from tissue bioengineering, regenerative and stem cell research.

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