Medical terms explained simply

Clear explanations of common medical & legal terminology.

Acute pain

Pain that is usually temporary and results from something specific, such as a surgery, an injury, or an infection.

Adjuvant medications

Medications that were initially used not for pain but treatment of other conditions.

Advance care plan

Advance care plans are designed to be used when people are unable to make decisions for themselves. They include a persons wishes for medical care, or refusal of care


Anorexia is a lack of appetite and can be temporary. It can occur with infection, constipation, depression or other medical treatment.

Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation is an irregular and often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow to the body.

Breakthrough pain

A temporary and usually short term increase in pain that occurs in patients with stable, baseline persistent pain.


Cachexia is a complex syndrome of weight loss, fatty tissue breakdown, loss of muscle, anorexia, chronic nausea and weakness.

Chronic heart failure

Chronic heart failure is a condition in which the heart has lost the ability to pump enough blood to the body’s tissues. With too little blood being delivered, the organs and other tissues do not receive enough oxygen and nutrients to
function properly.

Chronic pain

Pain that lasts beyond the term of an injury or painful stimulus and has no recognisable end point. The term chronic pain is sometimes used to mean cancer pain, pain from a chronic or degenerative disease, or pain from an unidentified cause.


Two or more coexisting medical conditions or disease processes that are additional to an initial diagnosis.

COPD – Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a progressive lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe. ‘Progressive’ means that the disease gets worse over time. (


Delirium is the acute development of confusion and altered consciousness or attention occurring in a fluctuating manner.


Dementia is a syndrome in which cognitive ability and function decline.


Difficulty in articulating words due to emotional stress or to paralysis, in coordination, or spasticity of the muscles used in speaking.


Dysphagia – Difficulty in swallowing or inability to swallow.


Dyspnoea is an awareness or sensation of uncomfortable breathing. (Thomas and von Gunten 2003)

End of life

That part of life where a person is living with, and impaired by, an eventually fatal condition, even if the prognosis is ambiguous or unknown.

End of life care

End of life care combines the broad set of health and community services that care for the population at their end of life. Quality end of life care is realised when strong networks exist between specialist palliative care providers, primary generalist providers, primary specialists, support care providers and the community, working together to meet the needs of people requiring care. (Palliative Care Australia 2008)

Episodic paroxysmal pain

Shooting, electric shock like pain, common in neuralgia.

Existential distress

Existential distress at the end of life has been defined as hopelessness, burden to others, loss of sense of dignity, desire for death or loss of will to live and threats to self-identity.


Fatigue is a persistent, subjective sense of tiredness.

Forced Vital Capacity (FVC)

Forced Vital Capacity (FVC) – The amount of air which can be forcibly exhaled from the lungs after taking the deepest breath possible.


A physiologic syndrome characterized by decreased reserve and resistance to stressors, resulting from cumulative decline across multiple physiologic systems, and causing vulnerability to adverse outcomes.

Functional status

Functional status is an individual’s ability to perform normal daily activities required to meet basic needs, fulfill usual roles, and maintain health and well-being. Functional status can be influenced by biological or physiological impairment, symptoms, mood, and other factors. It is also likely to be influenced by health perceptions. For example, a person whom most would judge to be well but who views himself as ill may have a low level of functional performance in relation to his capacity.

Holistic care

The term holistic refers to a whole made up of interdependent parts. You are most likely to hear these parts referred to as the mind-body connection, mind-body-spirit or physical-mental-emotional-spiritual-sexuality aspects. When this meaning is applied to the treatment of illness it is called holistic medicine and includes a number of factors, such as dealing with the root cause of an illness, increasing patient involvement and considering both conventional and complementary therapies. The principles of palliative care are framed around holistic care and the interdependent physical, social, emotional, psychological, cultural and spiritual aspects. (Palliative Care Australia 2008)


Hypertension – abnormally high blood pressure. A state of great psychological stres

Multidisciplinary team

A multidisciplinary team consists of a mix of health care disciplines. Team members share common goals, collaborate and work together in the planning and delivery of care. Members of a multidisciplinary team might include GPs, surgeons, medical or radiation oncologists, palliative care specialists, pastoral care workers, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, dieticians, volunteers, pharmacists or care assistants.


Unpleasant feeling of the need to vomit.

Nerve block

A procedure in which an anesthetic agent is injected directly near a nerve to block pain as a from of regional anesthesia.


Pain along a nerve pathway following injury.

Neuropathic pain

Pain caused by damage to the central or peripheral nervous systems.

New York Heart Association (NYHA) Functional classification

Classification of patients’ heart failure according to the severity of their symptoms.. It places patients in one of four categories based on how much they are limited during physical activity.

Nociceptive pain

Nociceptive pain occurs as a result of the stimulation of nerve endings (called nociceptors) in skin and deep tissues that are sensitive to noxious stimuli.


Osteoarthritis – degeneration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone, most common from middle age onward. It causes pain and stiffness, especially in the hip, knee, and thumb joints.

Palliative care

“Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual”.
The World Health Organisation (2012)


A prediction of the probable course and outcome of a disease. The likelihood of recovery from a disease.

Psychogenic pain

Psychogenic pain is physical pain that is caused, increased, or prolonged by mental, emotional, or behavioral factors. Headache, back pain, or stomach pain are some of the most common types of psychogenic pain

Referred pain

Pain felt at a site somewhere else in the body other than where the cause of the pain is situated.


A feeling of cold, accompanied by muscle tremor or shakes, that occurs when someone has a high fever.

Specialist palliative care

Specialist palliative care services are provided by an interdisciplinary team of specialist palliative care professionals whose substantive work is with patients who have an eventually fatal condition. Specialist palliative care services are provided in care settings including community, home, hospitals, aged care homes, hospices and palliative care units. These services work in three key ways in accordance with Palliative Care Australia’s service provision model: providing direct care to referred patients with complex needs, providing consultation based services to patients being cared for by primary care providers and providing support and education to services providing end of life care. (Palliative Care Australia 2008)


Spirituality is defined as ‘that which lies at the core of each person’s being, an essential dimension which brings meaning to life’. (MacKinlay 2001)

Syringe driver

Delivery of continuous pain relief via a range of different routes, often subcutaneously, using a small needle under the superficial skin

Terminal restlessness

Terminal agitation or restlessness can occur in the final stages of disease or illness. It can take the form of agitation, jerks or twitching, hallucinations, confusion, anxiety, irritability and impaired consciousness. It can be entirely normal.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation – TENS

Use of a battery-powered device to relieve acute and chronic pain. Electrodes within sticky pads are placed onto the skin and transmit electrical impulses, which produce a mild tingling sensation.

Visceral pain

Viscera is a body organ. Visceral pain is pain associated with deep body cavities body organs.

WHO Analgesic Ladder

World Health Organisation has developed a three-step “ladder” for pain relief in adults. If pain occurs, there should be prompt oral administration of drugs in the following order:

  • Non opioids (aspirin and paracetamol);
  • then, as necessary, mild opioids (codeine);
  • then strong opioids such as morphine, until the patient is free of pain.