Medical Terms that Every Nurse Should Know

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A&E
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accident and emergency
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A&W
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alive and well
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a.c.
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An abbreviation for “ante cibum,” meaning before meals. It is used as an instruction for administering medication.
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A/O
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alert and oriented
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Abductor Muscle
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Abductor muscles are those used to move a limb away from the midline of the body or adjacent body part, e.g. deltoid muscles for lifting the arm away from the body.
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ABO blood group
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The major classification system for human blood. It is based on genetics and a person can be A, B, AB or O. The blood cell type affects the creation of antibodies, so blood of a different type may be rejected by the immune system during a transfusion.
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Abortion
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The exit of a fetus from the uterus before it is viable. If it is spontaneous (not induced), it is termed a miscarriage.
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ABP
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An abbreviation used for “arterial blood pressure”; which is the pressure exerted on the walls of an artery by the blood within it.
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Abscess
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Any localized buildup of pus in the body. The pus accumulates in a cavity formed by the degradation of tissue by microorganisms.
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ABW
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An abbreviation used for “actual body weight,” which is the measured weight of a patient.
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Acquired Immunity
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Used in contrast to innate immunity, acquired immunity is developed during a life time from exposure to infection or vaccination.
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Acquired
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Something that is not innate but obtained during a life time. It is used to refer to immunity and diseases such as AIDS (Aquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).
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Activated Charcoal
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Carbon that has been treated to increase its power of absorption by increasing its surface area (it is very porous). It has a number of applications including to bind poisons on swallowing.
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Acute
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Occurring suddenly, progressing quickly and/or being of short duration. It is used to describe disease states in contrast to sub-acute and chronic.
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ad lib
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An abbreviation for “ad libitum,” meaning use as much as desired. It is used as an instruction when prescribing a treatment or medication.
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Adjuvant
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An adjuvant is a substance that helps other substances to function, yet has little effect on its own. Adjuvants are used in vaccines to help elicit an immune reaction. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy for cancer are sometimes called adjuvant therapies.
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ADR
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A medical abbreviation to describe the negative effect of a pharmaceutical treatment on a patient, standing for “adverse drug reaction”.
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Adrenaline
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Also known as epinephrine. Adrenaline is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. It acts on the sympathetic nervous system, eliciting a flight or fight response.
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Advanced Practice Nurse (APN)
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A nurse, also referred to as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), who has advanced education, skills and experience in a specialized field of nursing or in general.
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Adverse Reaction
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An undesired, dangerous and unexpected reaction to medication or treatment.
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Afferent
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To carry towards a centre. It is used in contrast to efferent and can describe vessels and nerves in the body. Veins are afferent vessels as they carry blood towards the heart.
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Afterbirth
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The expulsion of the placenta and fetal membranes through the birth canal after the birth of a baby. It usually occurs within an hour of childbirth and can be induced by the administration of oxytocin.
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Agressive
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Aggressive describes the manner in which some cancers or infections develop. Aggressive tumors are quick to grow and spread.
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Airway
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The pathway for air to enter the body to reach the lungs. Air enters through the nose or mouth, passes the pharynx and larynx and then goes through the trachea into the bronchi. It follows the same pathway to exit the body.
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Akinesia
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A pathological inability to move due to a malfunction in the neuromuscular system. It is a common characteristic of advanced Parkinson’s disease.
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Alcoholism
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An addiction to alcohol. It is characterized by excessive and compulsive consumption despite ill effects on own well-being and that of others. Chronic alcohol abuse can result in both physical and psychological dependencies as well as considerable tolerance to its effects.
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Allergy scratch test
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Also called a skin allergy test, it is a test done on the skin to detect allergic responses to different substances. A microscopic amount of a potential allergen is introduced onto a small scratch on the skin and the response is measured by assessing the resulting inflammation.
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Allopathy
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A type of medicine, also called conventional or western medicine. It was coined by the creator of homeopathy and is not always accepted by practitioners of conventional medicine.
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Alopecia
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Partial or complete hair loss or baldness. It can be pathological, the result of depilation, chemotherapy or it can be genetic (androgenic alopecia or male pattern balding in males and females).
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Alternative medicine
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Alternative medicine is used to describe healing practices that do not fall into the normal methods of conventional, or western, medicine. It is usually not proven scientifically to be effective. It should not be confused with complementary medicine.
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Amenorrhea
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The lack of menstruation in a woman of reproductive age. It can be pathological (often due to hormonal disturbances) or due to pregnancy, lactation or menopause.
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Amniocentesis
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The extraction of a small amount of amniotic fluid from the amnion, which contains fetal tissue. It is performed to test for genetic conditions and infections in the fetus. It is performed using a needle and carries some risk of miscarriage.
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Amphetamine
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A psychoactive drug which promotes wakefulness and decreases appetite. Members of the amphetamine group of drugs are used to treat Attention deficit disorders and narcolepsy; however they are also commonly abused due to their performance boosting, appetite diminishing and euphoria inducing properties.
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Ampule
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A small sealed glass flask which typically contains injectable pharmaceutical chemicals and substances that react easily with air. It is opened by snapping off the top.
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Analgesia
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A lack of pain sensation whilst still conscious. Analgesics belong to a group of drugs that relieve pain.
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Anaphylactic shock
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A severe and widespread acute allergic (hypersensitivity) reaction. It can be fatal and is characterized by low blood pressure and bronchoconstriction.
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Anemia
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A state of having an abnormally low concentration of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood. This affects the efficiency with which the body can transport oxygen, leading to hypoxia.
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Anesthesia
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A state of being without sensation. A local anesthetic blocks sensation in a localized area and a general anesthetic causes the recipient to temporarily lose consciousness. It allows for the administration of surgery or treatments that would otherwise cause considerable pain.
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Aneurysm
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An aneurysm is a localized ballooning of a blood vessel due to a weakening of the vessel wall. The “balloon” fills with blood and can rupture causing serious hemorrhaging and sometimes death. Aneurysms are common in the brain.
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Antibody
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Also called immunoglobulins (Ig), antibodies are proteins that the immune system uses to identify and fight foreign substances or objects such as bacteria, viruses or pollen grains. The tips of antibodies bind antigens.
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Antidote
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A substance that can counter the action of a poison, e.g. antivenom. Not all toxins have a known antidote.
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Antiretroviral Therapy (ART)
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Medication given to fight infections by retroviruses such as HIV. It sometimes includes a number of drugs given in combination. (HAART- highly active ART).
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Antiseptic
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An antiseptic is a substance that is antimicrobial; able to kill bacteria and viruses. Used in contrast to antibacterial (can limit bacterial growth, not necessarily kill them) and disinfectant (for use on non-living objects only).
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Apgar Score
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A score used to measure the health of a baby immediately after being born. The score is out of 10 and assesses the “Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration” of the infant. The test is normally done one and five minutes after birth and repeated if the score remains low.
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Apnea
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Apnea is a state of suspended breathing. Breathing can be suspended voluntarily, by a mechanical force, as the result of disease or it can be drug induced. Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing stops whilst sleeping, causing the sufferer to wake to restart respiration.
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Appendix
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The appendix is a blind-ended, worm shaped, vestigial organ situated near the junction of the small and large intestine. It has no real function but can become inflamed and require removal.
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Arrhythmia
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Arrhythmia is also called Cardiac dysrhythmia. It refers to a group of conditions characterized by abnormal electrical impulses in the heart, which cause an irregular heart rate. It can result in cardiac arrest.
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Arthritis
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A broad term to describe conditions affecting the joints in the body. The most common include osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. It is associated with considerable pain, reduced function and physical deformation.
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Aspirin
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Also called acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin is a very common drug used as an anti-inflammatory, an analgesic and an antipyretic, as well as an anti-platelet agent in people prone to thrombosis. It is the major non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug.
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Assay
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A test of the activity or amount of a substance. There are many types of assays that can be performed including immunoassays, enzymatic activity assays and cell viability assays.
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Asthma
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Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways, which affects breathing and manifests as coughing, wheezing and struggling to breathe. It can be caused by allergens and is usually characterized by acute asthma attacks. It can be treated by inhaling corticosteroids.
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Asymptomatic
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Showing no symptoms. Asymptomatic is used to describe a patient who carries a disease or infection but shows no symptoms normally associated with the disease. Symptoms can sometimes arise later or the disease can resolve itself with symptoms never arising. Also referred to as sub-clinical infection.
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Arteriosclerosis
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The buildup of fatty substances, especially cholesterol, in the arteries. It is the major cause of heart disease as the plaques can block the flow of blood to and/or from the heart. It is also called the hardening of arteries.
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Atopic
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Atopy is an allergic reaction in parts of the body that are not necessarily in contact with the allergen. It is generally used for a genetic predisposition to hypersensitivity reactions.
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Attenuated vaccine
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An attenuated vaccine is one that uses a living pathogen with decreased virulence e.g. the measles, chicken pox and yellow fever vaccines. Used in contrast to an inactivated vaccine where the infectious agent is killed.
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Autoimmune
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Autoimmunity is when the immune system recognizes the body’s own cells as foreign and mounts an immune response. It is a failure of the immune system to recognize “self” cells.
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Autopsy
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A medical procedure undertaken after death to determine the cause of death or to identify any other abnormality. It is also called a post-mortem.
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b.i.d. (or BID)
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Latin for “bis in die” meaning twice in a day, normally used as an instruction for administering prescribed medicine.
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Basal metabolic rate
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The basal metabolic rate is the underlying, or resting rate of energy expenditure. This is usually measured after fasting and while at rest.
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Bed sore
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A lesion caused most frequently by pressure and exacerbated by urine, micro-organisms, medication and age. They occur predominantly in bed-ridden patients who are not moved often enough.
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Benign
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The term benign is usually used to describe tumors that are not cancerous or malignant. It is not invasive (spreading into other tissue) but does grow in situ.
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Bile
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Bile is a liquid substance produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. It acts in the duodenum via the common bile duct to aid digestion.
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Bilirubin
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One of the products in the breakdown of hemoglobin in red blood cells. It is yellow/orange in color.
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Biopsy
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Generally used for making diagnoses, a biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for visualization of the cells, usually under a microscope.
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Blood clot
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Also called a thrombus; a blood clot is an aggregation of platelets through the process of coagulation. It occurs normally through injury or pathologically as a thrombosis.
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Blood count
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A full or complete blood count measures the number of red bloods cells (erythrocytes), white blood cells (leukocytes) and platelets (thrombocytes) in a unit of blood. Abnormalities in the count can indicate disease states.
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Blood plasma
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Blood plasma is the liquid part of blood in which the blood cells are suspended. It is made predominantly of water and dissolved proteins and sugars as well as minerals, clotting factors and carbon dioxide.
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Blood pressure
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Blood pressure is a measure of the pressure of circulating blood on the walls of blood vessels. It is one of the vital signs. It is measured as the systolic pressure (maximum) over diastolic pressure (minimum), averaged over a number of heart beats.
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Blood transfusion
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A medical procedure of transferring blood or components of blood from a donor to a patient. It is a lifesaving technique used when there is major blood loss, during trauma or surgery, or in the case of severe anemia. It is associated with some risk of transferring blood parasites and infections as well as if blood of a different type is used.
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Body mass index (BMI)
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An index used to assess the relationship between a person’s height and weight. It is defined as weight in kilograms (kg) divided by height in meters (m) squared. Mid-range values indicate a healthy weight in relation to height.
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Bone mineral density
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Bone mineral density (BMD) is a measure of the density of bones (how much matter there is per unit squared). Low values can indicate the presence of or a susceptibility to osteoporosis.
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Botulism
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A rare but serious disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It produces a toxin that causes nerve paralysis and which is used cosmetically as “botox”.
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Bradycardia
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Bradycardia is a resting heart rate lower than 60 beats per minute. Cardiac arrest can occur if it drops below 50 beats per minute.
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Braxton Hicks Contractions
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The “practice” contractions of the uterus that occur near the end of pregnancy. They are differentiated from true labor contractions by their irregularity.
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Bypass
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A surgical method of creating an alternative passage for fluids or substances to pass. Common bypass surgeries include the gastric bypass and coronary artery bypass.
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Caesarian section
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A surgical procedure to deliver a baby or dead fetus. It involves making an incision through the abdomen and uterus of the mother. It is normally indicated if the baby is in distress, if normal labor does not progress or if the baby is laying breech.
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Capillary
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A capillary is the smallest type of blood vessel found in the microcirculation system. It allows for the exchange of gases and nutrients between the blood and tissue at a cellular level. They arise from arterioles and venules.
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Carcinogen
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A carcinogen is substance that directly promotes the development of cancer. It includes radiation and toxins. They normally act by damaging the DNA of cells, causing mutations that result in unchecked cell growth.
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Carcinoma
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A carcinoma is a malignant tumor originating from epithelial, or similar, cells.
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Case management
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The coordination of long term patient care by a case manager, especially for patients with chronic conditions.
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Catatonia
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A state associated with psychological and motor disturbance, characterized by a loss of movement or repetitive movement, often holding the same pose for extended periods. It can occur with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, some infections and from drug induction or withdrawal.
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Catheter
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A tube that is inserted into a body cavity, vessel or duct. It is used to drain fluids from the bladder or sites of infection and can be left inserted for a period of time or even permanently. It can also be used to administer substances into the body.
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Cauterization
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A method of burning part of the body to seal it by killing some tissue. It is used less often now but historically has been used to stop bleeding at sites of severe injury, closing amputation sites and sterilizing sites of infection.
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CD 4
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CD 4 stands for Cluster of Differentiation 4. It is a glycoprotein found at the surface of a number of immune system cells (T-cells, monocytes, dendritic cells, macrophages). A CD 4 count is done to estimate the function of the immune system, especially in people with AIDS.
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Certified nurse-midwife (CNM)
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A registered nurse with some advanced education in the field of maternity nursing, usually a master’s degree that can be through the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
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Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
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An advanced practice registered nurse who has additional training recognized by the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, in the administration of anesthetics.
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Cervix
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The cervix is the neck of the uterus; a narrowing where the uterus joins the vagina. Part of the cervix is visible using a speculum.
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Chemotherapy
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Technically, chemotherapy is the treatment of illness with chemicals, however it more often refers to the chemical treatment of cancer with antineoplastic drugs.
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Cholesterol
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Cholesterol is an important component of cell membranes to maintain balance in its fluidity. It is a sterol made mostly in animals. Excessive cholesterol intake can increase the risk of heart disease.
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Chronic
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On-going or lasting a long time. A chronic condition is normally one that last longer than three months. It is in contrast to “acute”.
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Circulating nurse
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A surgical nurse who circulates the operating room to ensure that the procedure is done in sterile conditions and monitors the progress of the surgery, sometimes with administrative responsibilities.

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