No one wants to seem ignorant when they see their doctor, but no one should be expected to be bilingual either. If your doctor's medical jargon is incomprehensible, you're not getting your money's worth. In fact, not knowing what your doctor is talking about can be downright dangerous.

Here are five common terms that patients hear frequently—but often don't understand.

1. Blood Pressure. When your doctor says your blood pressure is something over something, what is she talking about? She's referring to the pressure of the blood in the arteries, the result of the heart muscle's contractions. Let's say your blood pressure is 120 over 80, which is read as 120/80. The two numbers reflect the first and last heartbeats heard with a stethoscope after a blood pressure cuff (a sphygmometer) is pumped up to restrict blood flow, then slowly released.

  • The first number (120) is called systolic pressure and it measures the highest pressure as the heart contracts.
  • The second number (80) is called diastolic pressure and it measures the lowest pressure as the heart relaxes.

What should your blood pressure be? If your systolic number is below 120, and your diastolic number is below 80, you have normal blood pressure. Higher numbers can indicate pre-hypertension, or hypertension (high blood pressure).

2. Cholesterol. What if your doctor says you have high cholesterol? Cholesterol is a natural chemical compound produced by the body, a combination of lipid (fat) and steroid. Cholesterol is a building block for cell membranes and hormones like estrogen and testosterone. The liver produces about 80 percent of the body's cholesterol; the rest comes from diet. When your doctor gives you your cholesterol lab results, you'll hear three numbers, which are expressed in terms of milligrams (thousandths of a gram) per deciliter (tenths of a liter) of blood (mg/dL).

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is known as "bad cholesterol," because high levels are associated with heart disease. LDL levels lower than 100 md/dL are great; levels from about 130 to 160 mg/dL are borderline, and higher levels boost your risk of heart disease.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is considered "good cholesterol," because it prevents the hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) by taking cholesterol out of the arteries and depositing it in the liver. An HDL level of 60 mg/dL or more is good. For men, levels below 40 mg/dL and for women, below 50/dL, raise your risk of heart disease.
  • Total Cholesterol is the sum total of all cholesterol components in your blood stream. A good total cholesterol level is under 200 mg/dL.

3. Biopsy. If your doctor says you need a biopsy, she wants to remove and examine a tissue sample. Biopsies often help diagnose or rule out cancers, but are also used to identify other conditions. Biopsies may be performed with a needle or a scalpel; they might be minor procedures or require general anesthesia. After a biopsy, your tissue sample will be sent to a laboratory, examined under a microscope, and subjected to any tests your doctor has ordered.

4. CBC and BMP. Your doctor may order these blood tests to help determine your health status. CBC stands for Complete Blood Count, and it measures the amount of several different types of blood cells, including white blood cells (WBCs), red blood cells (RBCs), hemoglobin (HGB), hematocrit (HCT), and platelets in your body.

  • WBC: The normal range is between 4,500 and 10,000 cells/mcL, or cells per microliter (millionth of a liter). A higher count usually indicates infection.
  • RBC, Hgb and Hct values indicate the presence or absence of anemia (a lack of red blood cells). Normal RBC range for men is 4.7 to 6.1 million cells/mcL; for women, normal range is between 4.2 to 5.4 million cells/mcL. Normal Hgb is between 13.8 to 17.2 gm/dL (grams per deciliter, or tenth of a liter) for men, and between 12.1 and 15.1 gm/dL for women. Normal Hct ranges from 40.7 to 50.3% (in men), and from 36.1 to 44.3% (in women).
  • Platelets indicate your blood's ability to clot. The normal platelet count range is between150,000 - 400,000 platelets per microliter (millionths of a liter).
  • BMP stands for Basic Metabolic Panel, a test for sodium, potassium, calcium, and glucose levels, and measurements of kidney function. Your doctor may order this if you’ve had vomiting or diarrhea, or to screen for other types of diseases, including heart and kidney disease.

5. Body Mass Index (BMI). Your BMI is a measure of your weight in comparison to your height. It's calculated by plugging your height and weight into a formula.

  • Normal BMI for adults is between 20 and 25.
  • Overweight is 25 to 30.
  • Obese is 30 to 35.
  • Morbidly obese is 35 to 40 or above.

Don't hesitate to speak up when your doctor speaks medical-ese. Excellent health care is all about communication and getting the information you need.


Mayo Clinic. "High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): Blood Pressure Chart: What Your Reading Means." Web. March 28, 2013.

American Heart Association. "What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean." Web. 26 Feb. 2013.

MedlinePlus. "Biopsy." Web. 31 March 2013.

MedlinePlus. "CBC." A.D.A.M. Encyclopedia. Web. 19 March 2012.

MedlinePlus. "Platelet Count." A.D.A.M. Encyclopedia. Web. 31 Aug. 2011.