Glossary of Medical Terms

Medical terms glossary image

When people first enter the world of home medical equipment they are going to hear many terms and phrases that aren't commonly heard in normal conversation. I've created this medical glossary to help those who are unfamiliar with some of the terms or phrases they may hear while arranging equipment for themselves or others.

  • Abduction:

    The movement of a limb away from the median, or midline, of the body.

  • Abductor:

    A wheelchair seating component, also known as a pommel, that is designed to keep the knees separated.

  • Accreditation:

    A determination by an institution's governing board that an eligible organization satisfactorily complies with all applicable standards.

  • Adduction:

    The movement of a limb towards the median, or midline, of the body.

  • Adductor:

    A wheelchair seating component, also known as a hip guide, that is designed to keep the legs from splaying outward. Can be used in pairs or singly as needed.

  • Americans with Disabilities Act:

    Federal legislation passed in 1990 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, public services and accommodations, and telecommunications.

  • Ankle Orthosis (AO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders only involving the ankle.

  • Ankle/Foot Orthosis (AFO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders of the ankle and foot below the knee joint.

  • Anterior:

    The front of the body.

  • Assistive Devices Program (ADP):

    Funding program provided by the Ontario Ministry of Health to fund mobility and many other types of medical equipment and supplies. This program pays between 75% and 100% of the costs.

  • Bariatric Products

    Designed for use by very large users. Depending on the product type, bariatric can mean over 300 pounds or over 600 pounds. While the actual weight where a product is considered bariatric varies, the term means significantly larger than average adult size.

  • Below Knee Prosthesis (BKP):

    A prosthesis used for acquired amputations or congenital absences of the foot and ankle below the knee.

  • Bi-Level Positive Airway Pressure) (Bi-PAP)

    A device that provides ventilation for patients by delivering air to the lungs at two levels of pressure, either cyclically in an anesthetized patient or triggered by the patient's attempts at breathing when awake.

  • Cane

    Simple walking cane. Can be adjustable or not, can have a variety of different handle styles, may be designed for right hand or left hand use.

  • Cervical Vertebrae:

    The top seven vertebrae of the spine (C1 to C7) that bridge the space between the thoracic vertebra and the skull.

  • Cervical Orthosis (CO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders only involving the cervical spine.

  • Cervical/Thoracic Orthosis (CTO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders involving the cervical and/or thoracic spine.

  • Cervical/Thoracic/Lumbosacral Orthosis (CTLSO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders involving the cervical, thoracic and/or lumbosacral spine.

  • Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

    Heart failure in which the heart is unable to maintain adequate circulation of blood in the tissues of the body or to pump out the venous blood returned to it by the venous circulation

  • Child/Junior/Paediatric Wheelchair

    Wheelchairs for children are designed to allow some growth adjustment without the needs for new parts or very basic inexpensive parts. One manufacturer, whose product did require parts for growth in width, offers the first growth kit free.

  • Chin Control:

    A chin control is a device that allows people to drive their power wheelchair with their chin. It is basically a small joystick that can be mounted near the user's chin.

  • Commode

    Commodes are available in a variety of styles and types. Most can be used over toilets, many have wheels, some can be self-propelled, some tilt and some fold up. Generally a commode is a device for toileting and showering for those who can't stand or use a toilet or shower.

  • Compression Stocking

    Compression stocking aid circulation, reduce edema (fluid gathering in the lower extremities), provide support and reduce pain in some people.

  • Continuous Passive Motion (CPM)

    Continuous Passive Motion is the action of flexing and straightening joints continually 24 hours a day. It's been found that by continually moving joints post surgery they heal better, faster and less painfully. Devices have been created to strap onto the body and continually move the joints very slowly during healing.

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

    A general term for a variety of respiratory diseases. These diseases can include chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, asthma, etc.

  • Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP)

    One of the most common sleep disorders is sleep apnea - a disorder that causes a person's airway to close several times during one night's sleep. For those with sleep apnea, relief usually comes with continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to keep the airway open. CPAP devices deliver a prescribed level of positive pressure non-invasively to the upper airway for the treatment of sleep apnea.

  • Coccyx:

    The coccyx consists of three to five vertebrae that may or may not be fused and are often referred to as the tail bone in humans. Although it doesn't provide a protected channel for nerves it does provide an attachment point for various muscles, tendons and ligaments. Because it supports the weight of the upper body when sitting and there is little flesh between the coccyx and the skin pressure sores often occur in the area of the coccyx.

  • Crutch

    Standard adjustable crutches are lightweight and easily adjust to size. Forearm crutches have contoured arm cuffs for extra comfort and stability.

  • Diplegia:

    Paralysis of all for extremities, with the lower extremities more severely involved than the upper extremities.

  • Distal:

    A structure that is located farther away from the attached end of a limb.

  • Dorsal Surface:

    he top of the foot and the back of the hand.

  • Dorsiflexion:

    Bending the wrist so the dorsal surface of the hand points toward the forearm; bending the ankle so the foot points upward.

  • Edema:

    An excessive accumulation of fluid in the tissue spaces; commonly known as swelling.

  • Environmental Control Unit

    Permit remote control of electronic devices in the immediate surroundings. A person can independently turn lights, radio, and television on and off, answer or initiate phone calls, and unlock a door. Essentially any aspect of the environment can be controlled depending upon the system's complexity. For more information and products visit

  • Eversion:

    The outward rotation of the plantar surface, or sole, of the foot so that it faces away from the median, or midline, of the body.

  • Extension:

    The act of straightening a limb at a joint.

  • Flexion:

    The act of bending a limb at a joint, thus forming an angle.

  • Foot Orthosis (FO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders of the foot below the ankle joint.

  • Four Point Seat Belt:

    Wheelchair positioning belt that pulls the hips down and back to preserve proper positioning by using four attachment points.

  • Genu Valgum:

    Commonly known as knock-knee.

  • Genu Varum:

    Commonly known as bowlegs.

  • Hand Orthosis (HO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders of the hand and/or fingers below the wrist joint.

  • Helios Portable Oxygen System and Reservoir

    Small, lightweight, and long-lasting, encourages an active lifestyle for long-term oxygen therapy patients. No tubes, heavy canisters or batteries are required. The system is also extremely economical. Its pneumatic oxygen conserving device gives it a conservation ratio over continuous flow oxygen of approximately 4:1. This provides up to 10 hours of use at a setting of 2. The portable unit can be refilled in about 40 seconds from the home reservoir, which typically lasts four to six weeks between refills.

  • Hemiplegia:

    Paralysis of one-half of the body, specifically the upper and lower extremities on the same side, and half the trunk of the body.

  • Hip Disarticulation Prosthesis (HDP):

    A prosthesis used for acquired amputations or congenital absences of the complete leg involving the foot, ankle, shin and thigh at the hip joint level.

  • Hip Orthosis (HO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders only involving the hip.

  • Hip/Knee/Ankle/Foot Orthosis (HKAFO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders of the hip, knee, ankle, and foot.

  • Hospital Bed

    Hospital beds come in a variety of styles and configurations. They usually have a foot and head section that can be raised, some have an option the lift vertically, most can be fitted with side rails and most are equipped with casters.

  • Hyperextension:

    Extending the extremity beyond anatomical position.

  • Hypertension

    Blood pressure greater than or equal to 140/90 mmHg.

  • Institutional/Nursing Home/Depot Wheelchair

    The least expensive type of chair available, an institutional chair, is designed for institutional usage only, such as transporting patients in hospitals or nursing homes.

  • Inversion:

    The inward rotation of the plantar surface, or sole, of the foot so that it faces toward the median, or midline, of the body.

  • Ischial Tuberosity:

    There are two ischial tuberosities and they are bony swellings found on the lower back part of the hip bone. These two protuberances carry most of the upper body's weight while sitting upright. They can be easily felt by sliding one's hand under the buttocks while sitting are the most common areas for pressure sores for wheelchair users.

  • Joystick:

    The joystick is the part of a power wheelchair that the user uses to control the wheelchair's direction and speed.

  • Knee Orthosis (KO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders only involving the knee.

  • Knee/Ankle/Foot Orthosis (KAFO):

    A orthosis used for the treatment of disorders of the knee, ankle, and foot below the hip joint.

  • Kyphosis:

    Exaggerated posterior, or backward, curvature in the thoracic region.

  • Lateral (External) Rotation:

    The rotation of a body part away from the median, or midline, of the body. Also referred to as external rotation.

  • Lateral Support:

    A lateral support is a device, usually part of the wheelchair backrest, that provides a side support for the user by positioning a pad against the ribs at the side of the body. They can be used in pairs or individually as needed.

  • Liquid Oxygen System

    Liquified oxygen for home therapy to treat people with lung disease. A liquid oxygen tank holds many times the volume of oxygen found in a high pressure cylinder and is used by people who require high volumes of oxygen over long periods of time.

  • Lordosis:

    Exaggerated anterior, or forward, curvature in the lumbar or cervical regions.

  • Lumbar Vertebrae:

    The lower five vertebrae of the spine (L1 to L5) that bridge the space between the thoracic vertebra and the sacrum.

  • Mastectomy Prosthesis (MP):

    A prosthesis used for complete surgical removal or congenital absence of one or both breasts.

  • Medial (Internal) Rotation:

    The rotation of a body part toward the median, or midline, of the body. Also referred to as internal rotation.

  • Median Plane:

    The vertical plane that divides the body into right and left halves.

  • Monoplegia:

    Paralysis of any one extremity.

  • Musculoskeletal:

    Pertains to the muscles and skeleton.

  • Nebulizer

    A type of inhaler that provides a fine mist of medication to the lungs. This is performed by breathing the medicated mist through a mouthpiece or mask attached to the nebulizer device.

  • Necrosis:

    Cellular or tissue death within the living body, such as with gangrene.

  • Negative Pressure Wound Therapy

    Also known as wound V.A.C therapy, this device uses negative pressure through a controlled suction to close large wounds and promote faster healing.

  • Orthosis:

    Custom designed and/or fitted anatomical devices applied externally on the human body which are intended to provide support and/or control of disorders associated with neuromuscular and/or musculoskeletal dysfunctions.

  • Orthotics:

    The practice and science of providing orthotic rehabilitation engineering services related to the assessment, design and development of external assistive, supportive, and/or corrective anatomical devices, referred to as orthoses, for the purpose of restoring specific neuromuscular and/or musculoskeletal disorders of the human body.

  • Orthotist:

    An allied health practitioner specifically trained in providing orthotic services at the direction of, and in consultation with, a licensed practicing physician.

  • Oxygen Concentrator

    Electronically powered device with a series of filters that extract oxygen from room air. Also, a backup system, usually a stationary compressed gas system must always accompany a concentrator in case of power failure or other emergency.

  • Oxygen Conserver

    A type of regulator, which conserves the amount of gaseous oxygen in portable cylinders.

  • Oxygen Cylinder

    High pressure gas cylinders used buy people who need oxygen enriched air to breath and function at their best. These cylinders are available in various sizes.

  • Palmar (Volar) Flexion:

    Bending the wrist so the palmar surface of the hand points toward the forearm

  • Palmar (Volar) Surface:

    The front, or palm, of the hand. Also referred to as the volar surface.

  • Paralysis:

    Complete loss of the ability to control muscular activity in various locations.

  • Paraplegia:

    Paralysis of one-half of the body, specifically the lower portion of the trunk and both lower extremities.

  • Patient Lifts

    Lifts designed to lift people to or from a bed, wheelchair, bath tub, toilet, chair, etc.

  • Paediatric Nebulizer

    A device that delivers medications to people's lungs in a mist that is inhaled. The paediatric version is just a smaller version of the regular nebulizer.

  • Plantar Flexion:

    Bending the ankle so the foot points downward.

  • Plantar Surface:

    The bottom, or sole, of the foot.

  • Portable E-Tank

    High pressure oxygen cylinder for short term use by people with lung disease. The letter "E" designates the size with lower letters being smaller tanks and higher letters being larger. The most common sizes for portable use are "E" and "D".

  • Portable Lifting Cushion

    A device placed on a chair that is sat on and aid the user in standing but exerting upward pressure when activated.

  • Portable Oxygen System

    Any oxygen device that can be taken with the user on outings. Oxygen cylinders, liquid portable tanks, portable concentrators, etc. would all fit into this term.

  • Posterior

    The back of the body.

  • Powered Wheelchair

    Any wheelchair that is propelled by electric motors and controlled by the user using some type of controller.

  • Powered Wheelchair Controls

    One of several systems for driving the power wheelchair. Joysticks, chin controls, head controls, sip 'n' puff, scanners, etc. are all types of wheelchair controls.

  • Powered Wheelchair Seating System

    Seating systems provide comfort and positioning for wheelchair users. They can composed of many components but the main two are a cushion and a backrest.

  • Pronation:

    The movement of the forearm so that the hand rests palm down on a surface.

  • Prone:

    Position of the body when laying flat on one's stomach facing down.

  • Prosthesis:

    Custom designed and/or fitted anatomical devices applied externally to the human body for the purpose of restoring congenital and/or acquired neuromuscular and musculoskeletal dysfunctions of the human body associated with the complete or partial absence of a limb.

  • Prosthetist:

    An allied health practitioner specifically trained in providing prosthetic services at the direction of, and in consultation with, a licensed practicing physician.

  • Protraction:

    The forward movement of a body part such as the shoulder.

  • Proximal:

    A structure that is located closer to the attached end of a limb.

  • Proximity Switch:

    Proximity switches are often used to control the functioning of a power wheelchair or its accessories. These switches do not have to be touched to be activated. The user simply positions their hand, foot, head or other body part near the switch to activate it.

  • Quadriplegia (Tetraplegia):

    Paralysis of all four extremities and the trunk. Also referred to as tetraplegia.

  • Ramp

    Ramps enable people who are unable to manage steps to move from one level to another. They can be portable, temporary (installed for medium periods of time) or permanently installed.

  • Residual Limb:

    The portion of the limb remaining after amputation.

  • Restraint:

    Any device or strap that is intended to keep a person restrained from free movement.

  • Retraction:

    The backward movement of a body part such as the shoulder.

  • Rollator:

    A type of wheeled walker that usually has a seat, basket, swivel front wheels, hand brakes and backstrap or back rest bar. They are the most common walkers used these days and vary in sizes with the larger ones designed primarily for outdoors and the smaller ones primarily for indoor use.

  • Rotation:

    A circular or turning movement of a body part, such as the back or head, around its axis.

  • Sacrum:

    The lowest five vertebrae of the spine (S1 to S5) that is found below the lumbar vertebra and finish off the spine. The sacrum consists of 5 vertebrae that fuse themselves together between the ages of 18 and 30 years of age into a single "V" shaped bone.

  • Scoliosis:

    Lateral, or outward, curvature of the spine in the thoracic and/or lumbar regions.

  • Scooter

    Mobility devices that en-corporate a tiller for steering and are generally designed for outdoor use. They can be three or four wheeled.

  • Shoulder Harness:

    A shoulder harness is mounted to a wheelchair backrest to prevent the user from leaning forward.

  • Sip 'n' Puff:

  • Sub-ASIS Bar:

    Solid padded bar that spans the front of the hips and keeps the pelvis down and back into the wheelchair. Only used when seat belts or positioning belts will not suffice. The bar should be mounted just below the Anterior, Superior Illiac Spine (A.S.I.S.) of the pelvis

  • Supination:

    The movement of the forearm so that the hand rests palm up on a surface.

  • Supine:

    Position of the body when laying flat on one's back facing upward.

  • Thoracic vertebrae:

    The twelve vertebrae between the cervical and lumbar vertebrae in the spine (T1 to T12). The thoracic vertebrae have the ribs attached to them.

  • Triplegia:

    Paralysis of any three extremities.

  • Trochanter:

    At the top of the femur, just below the head of the femur, is an area where two or three bumps or eminences can be found. These bumps are trochanters and include the greater trochanter, the lesser trochanter and sometimes a third trochanter. The trochanter areas are areas that are often considered when deciding on a wheelchair cushion.

  • Urinary Incontinence

    Incontinence is the inability to control the passage of urine. This can range from an occasional leakage of urine to a complete inability to hold any urine.

  • Walker

    Mobility devices that provide support for people who have balance and/or strength limitations when walking so they can walk safely.

  • Wheelchair Seating System

    Seating systems can vary greatly between users but at a minimum consist of a cushion. They can also include backrests, headrest, lateral support and more.






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