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Discussing Illnesses and Injuries: Medical Terms and Vocabulary in American Sign Language

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 3/27/2015

The following article describes some helpful ASL vocabulary for use by signers while discussing illness and injuries in a medical setting and includes a link to an accompanying downloadable vocabulary study sheet. The descriptions are also helpful for medical personnel who need to understand ASL.

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    Medical Sign Language

    Signers who use American Sign Language as their primary means of communication must learn specific vocabulary to successfully Caduceus communicate with doctors and other medical professionals. For example, ASL signers must use different signs to talk about different symptoms such as bruises, fevers, and headaches. The following sections provide textual descriptions of the motions used for various signs needed by ASL signers to discuss illnesses and injuries of the body in a medical setting. This article is also a useful resource for those in a medical setting who want to understand the signs being used.

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    Symptoms

    bite – Begin with the left hand in front of the chest with the fingers together and the palm facing down. Form the right hand into the shape of a C with the fingers curled down and the thumb curled up. Use the right hand to bite the left hand by closing the right fingers onto the top of the left hand and the right thumb onto the palm of the left hand.

    blister – Begin with the left hand held in a fist in front of the body at waist level. Form the right hand into a fist with the right index finger held straight. Place the right index finger on the top of left fist. Move the right index finger back and forth. Then form the right hand into a claw and pull the right hand away from the left fist.

    bruise – Begin with the right hand held in front of the right cheek with the fingers held together and pointed up. Rotate the right hand toward the front while forming the letter P of the sign language alphabet. Then shake the right hand forward once. Then move the right hand to the upper lip while forming the letter Q of the sign language alphabet with the fingers held parallel to the floor. Then move the right hand still formed as a Q up past the face to the right temple. Finally form the right hand with the tips of the thumb and index finger touching to make a circle and the middle, ring, and pinky fingers pointed straight. Tap the circle on the left arm at the shoulder, the elbow, and the wrist.

    cough – Form the right hand into a fist. Tap the right fist against the chest three times.

    dizzy – Begin by forming the right hand into a claw. Place the right claw in front of the right side of the face. Move the right hand in a circle in front of the face.

    fever/temperature – Begin with both hands formed into fists with the index fingers held straight. Hold the left hand in front of the chest with the index finger pointing up. Place the right fist behind the left fist with the right index finger pointing left. The index fingers cross to form the lowercase letter T. Then move the right index finger up the back of the left index finger to finally form the uppercase letter T.

    headache – Begin with both hands formed into fists with the index fingers held straight. Hold the hands at forehead level on either side of the head. Twist the index fingers in opposite directions twice.

    hurt/pain - Begin with both hands formed into fists with the index fingers held straight. Hold the hands at chest level on either side of the body. Twist the index fingers in opposite directions twice.

    ill/sick – Begin with the fingers of both hands spread open and the middle fingers bent down. Touch the right index finger to the forehead and the left index finger to the stomach. Twist both hands clockwise.

    infection – Begin with the right hand formed into the letter I of the sign language alphabet at chest level. Then shake the right hand from side to side.

    itch – Begin with the left arm held in front of the chest. Then mime scratching the left wrist with the right hand.

    sneeze – Begin with the right hand in a fist with the index finger pointed straight. Place the right index finger under the nose and move the head down to mimic a sneeze.

    vomit – Begin with the mouth open. Hold the right hand in front of the face with the fingers spread open and the right thumb pointing into the mouth. Then move the right hand from the mouth down to the waste to mimic throwing up.

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    Illnesses and Ailments

    allergy – Begin with both hands formed into fists with the index fingers held straight. First touch the right index finger to the right nostril. Then move the right to in front of the body in front of the chest so that the right index finger meets the left index finger. Then pull the index fingers apart to the sides.

    head cold – Begin with the right hand formed into the letter X of the sign language alphabet. Place the right index finger on the bridge of the nose. Move the right index finger down the nose and over the lips to the chin. Repeat motion with right index finger.

    heart attack – Begin with the fingers of the right hand spread apart with the right middle finger bent down. Tap the right middle finger on the center of the chest with the palm of the right hand facing the body. Then raise the left hand to chest level with the palm facing toward the body. Form the right hand into a fist. Pound the right fist onto the left palm.

    pregnant – Begin with the hands held at waist level on either side of the body with the fingers of the hands spread open. Then move the hands forward and around to meet in front of the stomach in a motion that forms the shape of a pregnant belly.

    stroke – First tap the right side of the forehead with the right index finger. Then raise the left hand to chin level with the palm facing down while forming the right hand into a fist and punching the left palm with the right fist.

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    Other Medical Signs

    bandage – Begin with the left hand held in a fist in front of the body at waist level. Form the right hand with the index and middle fingers pointed straight and the other three fingers tucked onto the palm. Place the right index and middle fingers on the top of the left hand by the pinky finger. Then move the right hand over the top of the left hand toward the thumb.

    blood – Begin with the left hand in front of the chest with the fingers held open and the palm facing the body. Form the right hand into a fist with the index finger straight. Touch the tip of the nose with the right index finger. Move the right index finger down to in front of the left hand. Then open the fingers of the right hand. Move the open right hand down from the chin to the waist.

    doctor – Begin with the left hand at chest level with the palm facing up. Form the right hand with the index, middle, and ring fingers together and straight and with the thumb and pinky finger held on the palm behind the other fingers. Then tap the right fingers on the left palm twice.

    emergency – Begin with the right hand formed into the letter E of the sign language alphabet at chest level. Then frantically shake the right hand from side to side.

    nurse – Begin with the right hand formed into the letter N of the sign language alphabet. Hold the left hand to waist level with the palm facing up. Then tap the right index and middle fingers of the right hand on the left wrist twice.

    pill – Begin by forming the right hand into the letter Q of the sign language alphabet and then curling the thumb and index finger toward the palm. Hold the right hand in front of the mouth. Then move the right hand toward the mouth while opening the thumb and index finger to mimic placing a pill in the mouth.

    x-ray – Finger spell the word X-R-A-Y using the sign language alphabet.

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    Downloadable Vocabulary Sheets

    The accompanying printable vocabulary sheet of medical terms in American Sign Language is available for download at Medical Terms ASL Vocabulary Sheet and Body Parts ASL Vocabulary Sheet.

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