Medical Jargon: Understanding those complex terms

Oct 1 2018

Have you ever been to see a doctor or other medical professional and been baffled by the medical jargon used? Us too, so we know that sometimes it’s difficult to understand exactly what’s going on with your body. We often talk to clients who have little or no understanding of their condition because it’s not been properly explained.

Our physiotherapist Josh unpacks some of the most common terms and explains exactly what they mean. Remember, our friendly team of physios are always happy to help, so if at any point you don’t fully understand, all you need to do is ask.


This is a term which we hear very regularly, and which affects many physio patients. It’s often used to refer to bodily joints including the spine, shoulders, hips and knees, and we find that many clients try to protect their joints by not moving it and keeping it as still as possible, believing that the joint is damaged.

Simply put, degeneration means a gradual change over time. No matter how fit, active or healthy we keep throughout our lives our bodies will slowly change, and it’s an entirely natural process.

To illustrate, if we performed an MRI scan of lower backs in a random population ranging in age from their 20’s to 90’s, almost every person within this sample would have degeneration to some extent.

It’s important to understand that the amount of degeneration does not correlate with the degree to which you experience pain. Just because you have degeneration, does not mean you will experience pain. Sometimes people have a complete absence of pain even with considerable deterioration of the joint. So, if you do have pain, remember that degeneration may not be the sole cause. A comprehensive assessment with one of our physiotherapists will be needed to get to the root of the issue.

Soft tissue damage

The phrase ‘soft tissues’ refers to your muscles, ligaments, and tendons. ‘Damage’ is a general term used to describe a number of factors that have caused an injury to the joint or for pain to develop. These factors could include sprains, strains, pulls and tears in these soft tissues.

These types of injuries often follow a general, and recognisable, pattern. They will initially be quite painful and swollen. After the first week, the inflammation may lessen but pain may persist. Just as for degeneration, the level of pain does not always indicate the level of damage. Capital Physio’s team regularly assess and treat this type of injury. If you think that you have sustained soft tissue damage then get in touch and we will be more than willing to help.

Acute vs Chronic

‘Acute’ describes something that has happened recently. Its general use goes when the injury happened to a week or two after. This period is often characterised by pain and swelling which gradually should ease. Good examples of acute injuries we often see at Capital Physio are ankle sprains and twisted knees.

‘Chronic’ is a term used to describe anything that has been persisting for longer than the acute period. Again, whilst there is no exact time definition, it is generally agreed a month onwards is described as chronic. Common examples include lower back pain and tennis elbow.


We regularly use the term ‘instability’ to describe a joint in the body which has recently dislocated or causes persistent pain. The most commonly unstable joints that we see in our clients are shoulders, knees and ankles, and there are many underlying causes of instability; hypermobility (excessive movement at a joint because of lax ligaments), frequent sprains or muscle weakness.

We find it easiest to explain instability in terms of support. When the structures in the body that give a joint support are injured or not working properly it does not have adequate support, and so you may experience pain or a ‘giving way’ sensation may occur.

Instability can be a complex issue. If you feel this may be a cause of your symptoms then a comprehensive assessment from one of our physiotherapists is necessary.


Tendons are strong fibrous collagen tissue that connects muscle to bones, and they are essential for the movement of our limbs. Sometimes these can become sore and painful. When there is swelling, it’s classified as ‘tendinitis’. When a tendon has been injured for a longer period of time or is repeatedly aggravated, the fibres of the tendon are often affected, an occurrence that we refer to as ‘tendinosis’.

The general term for these two conditions is ‘tendinopathy’, or ‘tendon disorder’. These can persist for a long period of time.

Because of their differences, treatment for these two conditions does differ and you’ll need expert help. Our physiotherapists are fully qualified and experienced to recommend the best treatment for you.

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