Nursing Pathophysiology 101: What Students Should Know

Submitted by Jay Borenstein on Wed, 06/26/2024 - 18:21
A nurse studying for their ABSN exam on nursing pathophysiology

Pathophysiology combines two scientific fields in order to study and understand how different health conditions affect a person’s body. It’s a long word with a relatively straightforward definition—and nursing candidates spend a lot of time grasping its concepts. 

Simply put, pathology studies the underlying cause of injuries and diseases, and physiology is the study of the body and its systems. “Pathophysiology” refers to areas of medical study where these two focuses meet. As the Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine explains, this field of study focuses on biological processes in the body that are directly related to disease progression.

Nursing pathophysiology offers tools for nurses that guide care decisions for their patients. Knowledge of the medical literature, including pathophysiology case studies, helps nurses follow current guidelines for evidence-based care in their nursing practice. It’s also important for developing a nurse’s approach to medical problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Let’s cover some basic questions about pathophysiology in nursing, including ways that the science can inform day-to-day nursing practice for registered nurses (RNs).


What is pathophysiology in nursing?

Pathophysiology studies, documents, and describes how illnesses and injuries can disrupt or modify the body’s typical biological processes. By understanding the pathophysiology of various health conditions, nurses learn to observe the clinical manifestations of these conditions and proceed accordingly. 

When you arrive at an outpatient urgent care clinic with a sore throat and a runny nose, your nurse may take your vitals (including temperature, blood pressure, and blood-oxygen levels), document your health history, and ask questions about your symptoms. This information will give the nurse important information about whether your symptoms are most likely related to a viral illness, a bacterial infection, or an allergic reaction. Their hypothesis will then likely be communicated up to another healthcare provider who will provide a diagnosis or suggest additional testing. Understanding how symptoms relate to an underlying health condition is pathophysiology in action.


Why do nurses need to learn about pathophysiology?

Registered nurses (RNs) are typically required to take a pathophysiology course as part of their undergraduate coursework. 

Having a firm grasp of nursing pathophysiology helps nurses to: 

  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of various illnesses and injuries 
  • Create and implement a plan of care for treating health conditions
  • Educate and explain to patients about what is happening in their body 
  • Monitor patient’s responses to different treatment plans and document/decide whether a different course of action may be necessary

A confident understanding of pathophysiology also helps nurses develop the language and knowledge to communicate across disciplines to other members of a patient’s healthcare team, such as attending physicians, pharmacists, physical therapists, and primary care providers. 

Nursing candidates are required to study a wide range of illnesses and injuries as well as the impacts these conditions can have on the body. Cardiovascular diseases, respiratory disorders, and infectious diseases are some of the more common conditions that nurses will learn about. 

Nurses learning about pathophysiology may also simulate clinical scenarios, participate in group discussions, and read case studies to apply core concepts. 


The four components of pathophysiology 

Pathophysiology uses a framework of four main components that are related to each other. When taken together, these components describe physiological reactions that a human body may have to internal or external disruptions, such as bacterial infections, auto-immune conditions, traumatic injuries, and or viral disease.

These four components are: 


1. Etiology

This is the root cause or origin of a medical condition. Understanding the etiology of a condition helps narrow down or identify what is causing a patient’s symptoms, and also aids in patient education and prevention strategies. 

Example: The etiology of strep throat is a bacteria called group A streptococcus, also known as Streptococcus pyogenes. This bacteria is spread person-to-person through infected human secretions, such as droplets. 


2. Pathogenesis

The mechanism through which a disease or injury progresses through the body. Understanding the pathogenesis of a condition helps healthcare providers understand the sequence of events that happen to the body when a health condition is triggered. This is useful for diagnostics, deciding on a treatment plan, and projecting the outcome of a disease. 

Example: When someone is infected with strep throat, the mucous membranes of the throat and tonsils become inflamed. The bacteria that cause the infection release toxins that can trigger other symptoms including fever, swollen lymph nodes, and difficulty swallowing. In rare cases, strep throat can result in complications, including rheumatic fever, scarlet fever, or an abscess in the throat. 


3. Clinical manifestations

There are the signs and symptoms that healthcare providers use to define and identify a health condition. Clinical manifestations help healthcare professionals diagnose diseases and injuries, and also help them decide what further diagnostic tests might be necessary to distinguish one possible diagnosis from another. These symptoms also inform the treatment plan.

Example: Clinical manifestations of strep throat include the classic symptoms of the condition, including a feeling of “rawness” in the throat, difficulty swallowing, fever, and swelling in the glands. Fatigue, body aches, and nausea may also be present. These manifestations may resemble those of other illnesses, such as bacterial infections and influenza. If a swab culture test to detect the presence of Streptococcus pyogenes is positive, these other illnesses can most likely be ruled out. 


4. Treatment implications

Once a condition has been identified, the treatment implications define the goal and possible results of the treatment plan. This knowledge guides healthcare providers in the therapeutic approaches and interventions that they recommend to treat a patient. Treating the underlying cause as well as managing possible complications is crucial to ensure the best patient outcome.

Example: The typical recommendation for treating strep throat is a full course of antibiotics to kill the bacteria causing the infection. This can shorten the duration of the infection as well as prevent further complications from the illness. It is important for patients to understand that they need to continue taking the medication even after they start feeling better, completing the treatment as prescribed. Patients should also rest and drink plenty of fluids. Pain management with over-the-counter medications can provide symptom relief while the medication takes effect. 

The pathophysiology of any disease or injury will require nurses to document, describe, and assess the four main components above.


What you learn about pathophysiology in a BSN program

Pathophysiology is a foundational part of modern healthcare education, and it continues to evolve thanks to advancements in other fields like genetics and molecular biology. Nurses who graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) will build upon their pathophysiology knowledge throughout their nursing practice for their entire career.

A Bachelor’s degree in nursing typically takes four years to complete, but nursing candidates who already have a bachelor’s in another field and have completed prerequisite coursework can earn an accelerated BSN in far less time. ABSN programs are designed for students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree in another field and are now interested in entering nursing. 

Take the first step toward becoming a nurse today! Input your zip code below to see what accelerated BSN programs are available in your area.