What Is Pathophysiology in Nursing?

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Close-up of a nurse holding hands with an elderly patient and wearing a stethoscope.

Pathophysiology is the study of the physical and biological abnormalities in the body which occur because of a condition or disease. In some ways, the pathophysiology is considered the foundation of nursing practice, as it helps outline a nurse’s main responsibilities, such as assisting in the treatment of acute and chronic illnesses, managing medications, assisting with diagnostic tests, and managing general health care and disease prevention for patients and their families. Nurses who know what pathophysiology is and are able to recognize its signs and symptoms can provide a higher quality of advanced care.

To accelerate learning potential, a carefully designed and clinically effective degree program, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing, can help students assess their future in the ever-changing field of nursing and identify pathophysiology as a desirable practice choice.

How Nurses Use Pathophysiology

Pathophysiology is a discipline that applies to a wide range of duties in the nursing practice, particularly when aiding in the prevention and diagnosis of the following diseases.

Heart Failure

In the United States, about 6.2 million people are diagnosed with heart failure every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This serious condition results from a number of causes, most commonly hypertension, myocardial infarction, diabetes, and heart disease. Each of these conditions shows up in various symptoms that develop as the heart fails. A thorough understanding of the pathophysiology of heart failure is necessary for nurse practitioners to recognize the associated symptoms and determine the most effective course of treatment.

Although heart failure has high morbidity overall, there are certain methods of treatment that nurses and health care professionals can employ to reduce symptoms and prolong the lives of their patients.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that occurs as a result of an increased loss of dopamine in the brain. This common disease, typically affecting people over the age of 60, causes disability that grows in severity over time. While there is not a cure, early diagnosis and treatment can slow the progression of symptoms. Nurse practitioners educated in the pathophysiology of Parkinson’s disease can start patients on neuroprotective treatment, deep brain stimulation, and symptomatic drug therapy, as well as inform patients and their families about how the disease will affect their lives going forward.


According to the most recent data (2018) from the CDC, 42.4% of adults in the United States are obese. Obesity can cause significant metabolic, organ, and immune dysfunction, leading to many serious and often fatal conditions, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and certain cancers. Nurses can play a significant role in reducing obesity in child and adult patients by recognizing early signs and symptoms.

Pathophysiology is what nurses can use as a weapon to get ahead of worsening problems from obesity. By promoting awareness of the condition, and teaching patients about diet, exercise, and other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, nurses can lessen instances of the dangerous conditions obese patients may develop. In extreme cases, nurses may help patients manage weight loss with prescription medication or bariatric surgery.


This chronic inflammatory disorder in which an individual’s airways are blocked causes recurring painful symptoms, such as coughing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and wheezing. Asthma can be caused by airborne allergens or irritants.

Nurses educated in the pathophysiology of this condition know that the body’s response is characterized by bronchoconstriction, mucus buildup in the airways, edema, and inflammation. The role of nurses is to guide patients with this condition by providing information on how to manage pain and discomfort, avoid allergens and other triggers, and treat asthma with prescription medications.

The study of pathophysiology is essential for nurse practitioners. Understanding the concept and its practical application gives nurses a thorough grasp of how diseases affect their patients and which treatments will be most effective.

Defining Pathophysiology in Nursing

Pathophysiology is the aftermath of disease, syndrome, or other condition that changes the way someone feels or interacts with the world. It can be anything from diagnosing the cause of a headache (pinched nerve, dehydration, stress, or something else), to more critical circumstances, such as why people with Bell’s palsy might not be able to effectively drink from a straw.

For nurses, it’s another way of asking “why?” Why is the patient experiencing their pain/difficulty/frustration? Mastery of pathophysiology in nursing can help nurses understand with speed and accuracy why any abnormal health changes have occurred in a patient, why they happened, and what can be done about them. Through observing these changes and the effects they have, nurses can better communicate with doctors and other medical professionals regarding how the patient’s treatment might evolve.

Skills Nurses Need for Pathophysiology in Practice

To accurately and effectively employ pathophysiology, nurses must cultivate both soft skills (useful, general-purpose skills) and skills specific to their field.

Strong Clinical Knowledge

To effectively apply the discipline of pathophysiology to nursing daily practice, it is important that the nurse has an in-depth understanding of acute and chronic diseases and their effects on the human body. The nurse also needs a range of knowledge pertaining to medications and other treatments used to address patients’ symptoms.

Critical Thinking

Nurse practitioners benefit from adept critical thinking skills when applying pathophysiological principles to the diagnosis and analysis of a patient’s disease or injury. Professionals who are able to quickly and accurately synthesize clinical data are better able to help patients cope and implement timely preventive measures.


Written and oral communication skills are essential for nurses when coordinating care. They must be able to communicate with physicians and other health care professionals regarding their patients’ diagnoses and treatments. Nurse practitioners also instruct their patients on how to address their conditions and how to prevent them from worsening.

It’s not enough to simply know which skills are needed as a nurse. The practical and effective application of each of those skills is even more important. Through this, it’s easier to understand what pathophysiology is not only on a conceptual level but how it can actually be used to help patients.

Realize Your Nursing Potential

The Ohio University online Master of Science in Nursing program (MSN) is designed to accelerate the potential of students who are seeking the skills and experience to take their nursing careers to the next level.

The curriculum features three specializations to choose from, so you can pursue your education your way. These specializations include Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, and Nurse Educator.

Explore the Ohio University MSN curriculum — and take the next step toward making a difference as a nurse today.

Recommended Readings

Importance of Diversity in Nursing Education

Nursing Theory and Practice: Examining the Connection

Why Get a Master’s in Nursing?


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adult Obesity Facts

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Heart Failure

Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine, Pathophysiology

Mayo Clinic, Obesity

MedAlertHelp, 36 Worrisome Global Obesity Statistics & Facts for 2021

Medscape, Asthma

Medscape, Parkinson Disease

News Medical Life Sciences, “Heart Failure Pathophysiology”

StatPearls, “Parkinson’s Disease: Etiology, Neuropathology, Pathogenesis”

StatPearls, “Pathophysiology of Asthma”

StatPearls, “Pathophysiology of Obesity”

The Nerdy Nurse, “What is Pathophysiology and Why is it Important?”