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Every occupation uses a special language, with its unique slang and technical terms. Medicine and dentistry use a vast and precise scientific language that may be difficult to understand by people who are new to the healthcare professions. Allied dental professionals have many responsibilities related to the use of proper dental terminology. Dental professionals perform dental charting; record and translate the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan; and record services rendered on a daily basis. These permanent, legal records of the patient must be complete, accurate and legible. As a healthcare coworker, it is important to speak intelligently with office staff, patients, and other healthcare entities. Conversely, the dental team members must be able to translate technical terms and procedures into simple, everyday English for patients. Doing this requires a full command of medical/dental terminology.
There is often more than one correct way to pronounce medical/dental terms. It is the speaker's preference as to which pronunciation to use. Helpful hints for pronunciation include: 1) ch is often sounded as a k; 2) ps is often sounded as an s, such as psychology; 3) i at the end of a word is sounded as "eye."
It is not the writer's preference when spelling a dental term. A change or error in spelling may totally change the meaning of a word. Phonetic spelling is unacceptable and a reference guide should be used if unsure of proper spelling. With experience, the use of technical language becomes second nature. This course offers a good base of knowledge to use and record dental terms correctly.
It is mandatory to have full command of dental terminology in order to speak intelligently with other dental professionals. Understanding the language of dentistry requires knowledge of word forms and how they are put together. Dental terminology is based upon basic word formation principles using word roots, prefixes, and suffixes plus commonly used abbreviations and acronyms. Scientific language entails using word forms to help identify and describe body structures, diseases, disorders, procedures and other descriptive terminology. Most scientific language is comprised of Greek and Latin word roots. Learning how to assemble medical/dental terminology requires the use of root words, prefixes, suffixes and knowledge of singular and plural forms.
Understanding the structure of a dental word helps to discover its meaning. The fundamental principle for understanding the structure of a word is to determine the word root. The word root is the foundation of a word that may have letters, a prefix or suffix added. Once the word root is found, the word is further analyzed to determine whether it is a compound word, combining word, singular, plural, abbreviation or acronym. See Table 1 - Selected Dental Word Roots, for a list of word roots commonly used in dentistry.
A compound word is formed when two or more word roots are placed together to build a word. Compound words are made up of nouns and adjectives. Examples of compound words used in dentistry include toothache, mouthwash, and toothbrush.
A combining word is formed when a word root plus a vowel is added to another word root. The first word root usually gives the word meaning. Combining words may have prefixes and suffixes added to change the meaning. The vitalometer is used in endodontic procedures to test tooth vitality; this is an example of a combining word form unique to dentistry. The terms vital + o + meter are joined together by the -o- to become a combining word. The two root words are vital and meter. Examples of combining words used in dentistry include leuk + o + plakia (white patch), peri + o + dontal (around a tooth) and radi + o + logy (study of radiation).
Prefixes are word elements that are either letters or syllables placed in front of a word root to modify the meaning of the word root. There are two principles to use when using prefixes to assist in pronunciation. First, drop the final vowel of the prefix before a word root that begins with a vowel. Second, a final consonant of a prefix may be changed before a word root beginning with a consonant. See Table 2 - Selected Dental Prefixes, for a list of commonly used prefixes.
Suffixes are word elements that are letters or syllables placed at the end of a word root to qualify the meaning of the word root. There are principles to use when using suffixes. First, drop the final vowel of the word root when the suffix begins with a vowel. Secondly, a suffix beginning with a consonant added to a word root may be changed for euphony. Euphony means to sound correct. See Table 3 - Selected Dental Suffixes, for a list of commonly used suffixes.
Singular and Plural
In the language of dentistry there are many different ways to change words from singular to plural. These rules are not absolute and must be checked and verified by word, spelling, and euphony. See Table 4 - Selected Examples of Singular and Plural Forms, for a list of terms that are commonly used in dentistry.
The use of abbreviations and acronyms in dentistry requires practice, but saves time during the charting process and other administrative tasks. Abbreviations are shortened word forms used to represent a complete word. See Table 5 - Selected Abbreviations, and Table 6 - Abbreviations Commonly Used for Prescriptions, for lists that are commonly used in dentistry.
An acronym is a word composed of the first letters of a group of words. These acronyms are often used while completing the patient chart to relate oral conditions and abbreviate longer dental terms. For example, the acronym "WNL" is used to relate that the patient's gingival condition is within normal limits. It is important that the whole dental team use the same abbreviations and acronyms to ensure standardized charting that promotes quality of dental care and eliminates any confusion over patient treatment. See Table 7 - Selected Acronyms, for acronyms that are commonly used in dentistry.
Technical language associated with the practice of dentistry is a combination of the preceding word parts. Dental technical language is the combination of word roots, prefixes and suffixes plus abbreviations and acronyms. Familiarity with dental word combinations is useful for proper healthcare communication and is the first step in beginning to build a dental vocabulary that easily uses the singular and plural and is pronounced and spelled correctly. Consistency is important to the dental team when using these terms to make entries in the patient record as it is a legal document.
Abbreviation - shortened word form to represent a complete word; example: Ext = extraction.
Acronym - word composed of first letter of each of a group of words; example: DOB = date of birth.
Combining word form - adding a word root plus a vowel to another word root; example: peri + o + dontal = periodontal.
Compound word - two or more word roots placed together to form a new word; example: mouth + wash = mouthwash.
Euphony - the quality of sounding correct.
Prefix - word element placed in front of a word root; example: hyperactive.
Pronunciation - articulate sound.
Suffix - word element placed at the end of a word root; example: gingivitis.
Word root - main meaning; foundation of a word; may have letters, prefixes or suffixes added to create additional meaning.
Create a word for each of the following:
1. A compound word meaning a tool to clean teeth is ______________.
2. A compound word meaning dental pain is ______________.
3. A combining word meaning the study of teeth is ______________.
4. A combining word meaning above the gingival line is ______________.
5. A combining word meaning a professional who straightens teeth is ______________.
6. ______________ is a root word for tongue.
7. A combining word meaning around the tooth is ______________.
8. A combining word meaning inflammation of the mouth is ______________.
9. A combining word meaning reshaping the bone is ______________.
10. A combining word meaning a white cell is _______________.
11. A common abbreviation on every prescription meaning recipe is ______________.
12. The singular of papillae is ______________.
13. The plural of prognosis is ______________.
14. The abbreviation for the maxillary dental arch is ______________.
15. An abbreviation used in dental charting to relate a normal condition is ______________.
16. The acronym for light amplified stimulation emission of radiation is ______________.
17. The acronym for oral hygiene instruction is ______________.
Answers to Pre-Test
Bird, D. & Robinson D. Modern Dental Assisting. 10th Ed. Elsevier Saunders. St. Louis, 2012.
CDT-2013 Current Dental Terminology. American Dental Association, 2013.
Dental Anatomy. American Dental Assistants Association. Continuing Education Course. 2013.
Dental Terminology. Delta Dental Smile. https://www.mysmilecoverage.com/ipWeb/appmanager/iep/deltarendesktop?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=tristate_dentalTerminologyPage. Accessed September 13, 2013.
Ehrlich A & Schroeder C.. Medical Terminology for the Health Professions. 7th Ed. Delmar; Cengage Learning. New York. 2012.
Glossary of Dental Health Terms. WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/dental-health-glossary Acccessed September 13, 2013.
Mosby's Dental Dictionary. 2nd Ed. Elsevier Mosby. St. Louis, MO. 2008
Robinson D. & Bird, D. Essentials of Dental Assisting. 5th Ed. Elsevier, 2013.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston, MA Houghton Mifflin Co. 4th Edition 2000.
About the Author
Esther K. Andrews, MA
Esther Andrews earned a Master of Arts in curriculum and teaching from Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich., an Associates of Applied Arts and Science from Grand Rapids Community College in Dental Hygiene, Grand Rapids, Mich., a Bachelor of Science and Associates of Applied Science in Allied Health Education and Associates of Applied Science in Dental Assisting from Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Mich. She is currently retired and living in the Bull Mountains of Montana.
She authored Practice Management for Dental Hygienists, published in 2006, online continuing education courses, and journal articles. Honors and awards bestowed include: 2005 Dental Assisting National Board Achievement for 30 year continuous Certification; in 2004 and 2006 - the American Dental Assistants Association Journal Award and in 2000 Life membership in the American Dental Assistants Association.