Your medical-speak cheat sheet

Your medical-speak cheat sheet

To get the care you deserve at the doctor’s office, understanding the lingo, and numbers, can go a long way. Here are some of the most important words to know

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Hypertension, hypoglycemia, low-density lipoproteins. Health terms, and their associated numbers, aren’t always the easiest to grasp — let alone pronounce. Still, when you meet with your doctor for an annual wellness visit, you might hear several unfamiliar terms such as these. Understanding them (and speaking up when you don’t) is part of managing any conditions you might have, such as diabetes, obesity, or high cholesterol.

The terms below tend to come up often in doctor visits. With a bit of knowledge, you can join the conversation with confidence — and leave your appointment with the tools you need to succeed.

Diabetes Terms

Blood glucose

Glucose is the main type of sugar found in your blood. Your body uses this sugar as its primary energy source. Hypoglycemia is when your blood glucose level is lower than it should be, and hyperglycemia is when it is too high.

There are a few different kinds of blood glucose tests your doctor can use. The two main types are a fasting plasma glucose test (meaning you haven’t had anything to eat or drink – except water – for at least eight hours) and a random plasma glucose test.

A fasting plasma glucose less than 100mg/dL is normal, while a reading of 100 mg/dL to 125 mg/dL may be a sign of prediabetes. Anything higher may signal diabetes. What about for a random plasma glucose test? Well, a reading of 200mg/dL or higher is a factor in a diabetes diagnosis.

Hemoglobin A1c

An A1c blood test measures your average blood glucose level over time, typically over a two- or three-month period. If you have diabetes, your doctor can use your A1c level to see how well your blood sugar management plan is working for you.

A normal reading is less than 5.7%, while a reading of 5.7% to 6.4% is a signal of prediabetes. Diabetes is diagnosed at an A1c of 6.5% or more.

Blood Pressure Terms

Blood pressure

This reading tells you how much force your blood exerts on the walls inside your blood vessels. It’s expressed in terms of systolic and diastolic pressure (like 120/80). Systolic pressure (the top number) is the pressure when the heart pumps the blood out, and diastolic pressure (the bottom number) is the pressure when the heart rests between beats.

Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)

When blood pressure is higher than normal, it’s known as hypertension. Normal blood pressure means your systolic readings are less than 120 mm Hg, and your diastolic readings are less than 80 mm Hg. Elevated blood pressure ranges from 120 to 129 systolic and less than 80 diastolic. High blood pressure or hypertension (Stage 1) begins at 130 to 139 systolic and between 80 to 89 diastolic

Cholesterol Terms


Lipids are fats in the body, and blood lipids are fats in the blood. A lipid profile is a blood test that measures total cholesterol, triglycerides, low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). It’s used to gauge heart disease risk. Cholesterol, a form of lipid, is found in some foods and is produced in the liver. Your body uses it to make hormones and build cell walls.


Triglycerides are another type of lipid or fat (different than cholesterol) and can raise your risk of heart disease. A healthy range is typically less than 150 mg/dL.

LDL cholesterol

This type of cholesterol is often called “bad” cholesterol. When your body has too much LDL cholesterol, it can build up as plaque in the walls of your blood vessels, raising your risk of heart disease and stroke. A healthy range is typically 129 mg/dL or less, while an optimal reading is less than 100mg/dL.

HDL cholesterol

This type of cholesterol is often called “good” cholesterol. It’s a type of fat in the blood that helps the body get rid of extra cholesterol. And so the higher your reading, the better. Typically, doctors like to see a reading of 60 mg/dL or higher.

Obesity Terms

Body mass index (BMI)

Your BMI is a measure of body size calculated by using your body weight and height. A healthy weight ranges between 18.5 and 24.9 BMI. Overweight is defined as having a BMI between 25 and 29.9. A BMI higher than that indicates obesity.

As with all these terms, it’s important to talk to your doctor about what your numbers mean for you and what you can do to be at your healthiest — both physically and mentally.