Medical Terminology



Abrasion: damage to the epidermis and dermis from shearing forces; commonly referred to as a scrape
Activated Charcoal: form of charcoal with a high surface area that is specially formulated to bind to substances; used to prevent absorption of swallowed substances from the intestine
Advanced Life Support (ALS): care provided to patients with use of drugs, advanced invasive airway procedures using cardiac monitor defibrillators, and advanced knowledge and judgment; these skills are generally reserved for pre-hospital care providers trained above the EMT-Basic level
Airway Adjuncts: devices such as oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal airways that are designed to prevent airway obstruction by the tongue
Anaphylaxis: exaggerated, life-threatening hypersensitivity reaction to a previously encountered antigen; caused by the release of histamine from the cells
Angina Pectoris: chest pain or pressure frequently brought on by exercise and relieved by rest; caused by ischemia in the heart and often treated with
Asthma: respiratory disorder characterized by recurring episodes of sudden onset of breathing difficulty, wheezing on expiration and inspiration as a result of constriction of the bronchi, coughing, and thick mucous bronchial secretions; also known as reactive airway disease
Automated External Defibrillator (AED): device used in cardiac arrest to perform a computer analysis of the patient's cardiac rhythm and deliver defibrillatory shocks when indicated
AVPU: acronym for Alert, Verbal, Painful, and Unresponsive; used to describe patient's responsiveness


Body Substance Isolation (BSI): isolation of substances that are excreted from the body to prevent the spread of communicable diseases
Bradycardia: heart rate less than 60 beats per minute; a patient with bradycardia may or may not have symptoms
Bronchodilators: medications that relax constricted airways, making airflow easier; commonly used in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma
Bronchospasm: condition seen in patients with asthma in which airways constrict tightly in response to irritants, cold air, exercise, or unknown factors


Capillary Refill Time (CRT): time it takes for a patient's skin color to return to normal after the skin or nailbed has been pressed or blanched; normal time is less than 2 seconds; assesses perfusion
Cardiac Arrest: condition in which the heart no longer generates blood flow, causing pulselessness and apnea; two of the many causes are arrhythmias and myocardial infarction
Cardiogenic Shock: cardiac failure whereby the heart cannot sufficiently pump blood to the rest of the circulatory system
Cerebrovascular Accident (CVA): a stroke, is a condition that results from a disruption of circulation to the brain, causing ischemia and damage to brain tissue
Cervical Collar: device used to provide partial C-spine immobilization; only 50% in the three major motions of anterior / posterior, lateral bending, and rotation; it is applied to the neck area of an injured patient suspected to having a cervical spine injury
Chief Complaint: brief statement describing the reason for the patient's seeking medical attention
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): condition characterized by diminished inspiratory and expiratory capacity of the lungs
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF): condition in which the heart is an inadequate pump, causing fluid to build up in the lungs (pulmonary edema) and venous system (distended neck veins)
Contusion: minor damage in the dermal layer of the skin, causing discoloration from blood leaking into the surrounding tissue; a bruise
Crackles: low-pitched bubbling sounds produced by fluid in the lower airways; often described as either fine or coarse
C-spine: neck area; common term in vehicle extrication trauma patient care; short for cervical spine
Cyanosis: slightly bluish, grayish, slatelike, or dark purple discoloration of the skin caused by a deficiency of oxygen and excess of carbon dioxide in the blood


Defibrillation: delivery of an electrical shock to the myocardium in an attempt to convert ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia to a normal rhythm
Diabetes Mellitus: a metabolic disorder that results from inadequate insulin secretion
Diaphoretic: state of sweating
Distal: located away from the center of the body; situated away from the point of attachment or origin or a central point
Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) Order: instructions to withhold resuscitation efforts; these can be issued by a physician after consultation with the patient or surrogate decision maker or by the medical command authority via radio communication


Edema: abnormal accumulation of fluid in tissues in response to injury
Emergency Medical Technician (EMT): person trained in and responsible for the administration of specialized emergency care and transportation to a medical facility of victims of acute illness or injury; the US Department of Transportation training guidelines for EMTs include a 110-hour course of instruction and clinical time
EMT-Basic (EMT-B): basic level of emergency medical technician education identified by the US Department of Transportation; provides basic emergency medical care
EMT-Intermediate (EMT-I): level of emergency medical technician between the level of EMT-Basic and EMT-Paramedic; the EMT-I generally has additional education in assessment over the EMT-B level; in addition, the EMT-I generally will be educated to use intravenous therapy and a limited selection of medications
EMT-Paramedic (EMT-P): most advanced level of prehospital emergency care provided identified by the US Department of Transportation; the EMT-P has advanced assessment skills and is trained in a wide variety of invasive interventions; the EMT-P can use a variety of medications, intravenous solutions, and other advanced treatment techniques
Epilepsy: group of neurologic disorders characterized by recurrent episodes of convulsive seizures, sensory disturbances, unusual behavior, loss of consciousness, or all of these; uncontrolled electric discharge from the nerve cells of the cerebral cortex
Epi-Pen: autoinjector that contains epinephrine used subcutaneously to counteract the effects of histamine


Febrile: pertaining to elevated body temperature; a body temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit commonly is considered febrile


Glasgow Coma Scale: standardized rating system used to evaluate the degree of consciousness impairment based on eye opening, motor response, and verbal response; points are scored for the patient's best response in each of the three categories
Glucose: simple sugar used by the cell for energy; derived from the digestion of complex carbohydrates that are eaten, from the breakdown of glycogen in the liver, or by conversion of protein in the liver


Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT): chemical substances (solid, gas, or liquid) that are toxic to humans; unprotected exposure to these chemicals may result in severe illness or death; they may be poisonous, flammable, explosive, carcinogenic, or environmentally pollutant; HAZMAT is the part of emergency services that handles these field situations
Head-Tilt, Chin-Lift: maneuver that opens the airway of unconscious patients; the neck is extended with one hand on the forehead and one hand under the chin
Hemiparesis: partial paralysis that affects only one side of the body
Hemiplagia: total paralysis that affects only one side of the body
Hemorrhage: severe loss of blood
Hypertension: abnormally high blood pressure; a risk factor for atherosclerosis, stroke, and other vascular events
Hyperventilation: process in which minute ventilation is increased above normal; purposely done for patients with head injuries or prolonged apnea


Incident Command System (ICS): system of control of the emergency scene that is set up by predetermined procedures for effective control of complex emergency operations, such as extrication operations; the origins of ICS can be traced to the fire service, but it has now been adapted for use in almost any situation requiring management of complex events
Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus: condition characterized by an inability to metabolize carbohydrates (sugar) because of a lack of insulin
Intravenous: a sterile solution or drug that is injected into the body by
Intravenous Cannulation: the placement of a catheter into a vein
Ischemia: a lack of oxygen to an organ


Jaw Thrust: maneuver for opening the airway in unconscious patients; enables cervical spine stabilization and is often used with trauma patients


Kendrick Extrication Device (KED): specially designed devices used in removing automobile crash patients; it is composed of the body sling with straps and handles, chin and head straps, and a space filler pad


Laceration: break in the skin of varying depths resulting from a forceful impact with a sharp object; deeper injury than is seen in abrasions, with larger blood vessels involved and more bleeding
Level of Consciousness (LOC): indirect measurement of cerebral oxygenation
Long Spine Board: device to immobilize the entire body as a single unit (also called a longboard)


Manual Cervical Immobilization: type of spinal immobilization in which the cervical spine is immobilized by hand until further devices can be applied
Mass (Multiple) Casualty Incident (MCI): commonly accepted definition of any incident involving one or more patients that cannot be handled by the first responding units to a scene
Mechanism of Injury: manner in which injuries occur; actions or objects that cause trauma injury to a patient
Medical Direction: various duties that a physician provides in support of an EMS system; includes protocols, case reviews, educational programming, etc.
Meningitis: and infection or inflammation of the meninges, highly vascular membranes that separate the skull from the brain
Myocardial Infarction (MI): condition in which part of the heart muscle (myocardium) dies because of inadequate supply of oxygen and nutrients; may be caused by a thrombosis, coronary artery spasm, or emboli; also called a heart attack


Nasal Cannula: device used to deliver low concentrations of oxygen to patients who need supplemental oxygen but who are not in acute respiratory distress
Nasopharyngeal (Nasal) Airway: airway adjunct inserted into a nostril and designed to prevent airway obstruction by the tongue
Nitroglycerin: mediation that dilates blood vessels and decreases the workload on the heart; often used to treat angina pectoris
Non-Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus: a diabetic condition that usually occurs in individuals over 40 years of age and usually can be controlled by diet and oral insulin
Nonrebreather Mask: device used to deliver high concentrations of oxygen to patients in acute respiratory distress; has a reservoir bag and a one-way valve to prevent rebreathing


On-Line Medical Direction: clinical type of medical direction that involves real-time direction of prehospital providers in the delivery of emergency care; also known as direct medical direction
OPQRST: acronym for assessing the complaint, signs, and symptoms of a patient (Onset, Provocation, Quality, Radiation, Severity, Time)
Oriented: describes a patient who can state name, current location, date, etc.
Oropharygneal (Oral) Airway: airway adjunct designed to prevent airway obstruction by the tongue in unconscious patients; inserted upside down and rotated 180 degrees


Packaging: preparing the victim for transfer from the vehicle to the ambulance
Past Medical History: significant past medical illnesses or traumatic injury that the patient has experienced
Patent Airway: an open, unblocked airway
Perfusion: state of adequate supply of oxygen and nutrients to the tissues; ability of the circulatory system to distribute blood containing nutrients and oxygen to the tissues
Pertinent Negative: absence of a sign or symptom that helps substantiate or identify a patient's condition
Pertinent Positive: presence of a sign or symptom that helps substantiate or identify a patient's condition
Prehospital Care Report (PCR): official or formal documentation of the physical assessment and care provided to a particular patient; may either be in a written or computer-based format
Protocols: written or printed instructions or plans for carrying out an activity; in EMS, a protocol is a document that describes, usually in a step-by-step manner, the method that is used to deal with a particular set of symptoms or conditions
Proximal: located toward the center of the body; situated next to or near the point of attachment or origin or a central point
Pulmonary Embolism: obstruction of blood flow to the lungs caused by a clot that has traveled from a deep leg vein to a branch of the pulmonary arteries; can cause acute dyspnea (difficulty breathing), hypoxia (lack of oxygen), and / or sudden
Pulseless Electrical Activity (PEA): a condition where there is a rhythm noted on the monitor that should result in adequate perfusion, but the patient is pulseless and apneic



Rales: a crackling or bubbling sound in the lungs
Refusal of Care: declined treatment based on an informed consent


SAMPLE History: mnemonic to help EMT-Basics assess history; S-signs and symptoms, A-allergies, M-medications, P-past pertinent medical history, L-last oral intake, E-event
Shock: failure of the circulatory system to perfuse tissues; hypoperfusion of the circulatory system
Snoring: noisy, raspy breathing, usually with the mouth open; indicates an airway obstruction
Spinal Immobilization: critical trauma patient care that involves the maintenance of the spinal column, in-line, in place so that further injury to that area will be prevented during patient removal or handling
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs): formal guidelines developed by emergency organizations to assist in preplanning emergency operations and procedures before the incident
Stridor: abnormal, high-pitched, musical sound caused by an obstruction in the trachea or larynx; usually heard during inspiration
Syncope: brief lapse in consciousness


Tachycardia: condition in which the heart contracts at a rate greater than 100 beats per minute
T.K.O. Rate: "To Keep Open" rate of infusing the IV solution; it is also referred to as KVO (Keep Vein Open); it is equal to approximately 8 to 15 drops per minute
Tourniquet: band of cloth or plastic placed around an extremity and twisted or knotted to increase pressure so that blood flow below the band is interrupted or stopped; last resort measure used to control severe bleeding
Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA): a stroke-like neurologic deficit that completely resolves within minutes to hours; also called a mini-stroke



Ventricular Fibrillation (VF or V-Fib): dysrhythmia in which the heart is in a state of disorganized electrical and mechanical activity, resulting in a lack of blood flow; treated with defibrillation


Wheezes: high-pitched sounds heard when air moves through constricted airways; commonly occurs in patients with asthma
Wide Open Rate: no restriction of fluid flow from the IV bag to the patient





  • McSwain, Jr., Norman E., and James L. Paturas. The Basic EMT: Comprehensive Prehospital Patient Care. 2nd ed. St. Louis: MosbyJems, 2003.
  • Shade, Bruce, Thomas E. Collins, Elizabeth Wertz, Shirley Jones, and Mikel Rothenberg. Mosby's EMT-Intermediate Textbook for the 1985 National Standard Curriculum. Revised ed. Philadelphia: MosbyJems, 2007.