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Nosology (from Ancient Greek νόσος (nosos), meaning "disease", and -λογία (-logia), meaning "study of-") is a branch of medicine that deals with classification of diseases.

Types of classification[edit]

Diseases may be classified by etiology (cause), pathogenesis (mechanism by which the disease is caused), or by symptom(s).

Alternatively, diseases may be classified according to the organ system involved, though this is often complicated since many diseases affect more than one organ.

A chief difficulty in nosology is that diseases often cannot be defined and classified clearly, especially when etiology or pathogenesis are unknown. Thus diagnostic terms often only reflect a symptom or set of symptoms (syndrome).

Coding systems[edit]

Several classifications of diseases have been historically proposed, and normally all of them assign a code to every supported disease. Some of them codify diseases following the path of the classification tree, and others like SNOMED use a multifactor classification system.

The most known coding system is the World Health Organization ICD-Series, but there are other accepted classifications like DOCLE, NANDA or SNOMED[1] Historically there were others like Berkson Coding System that are not maintained anymore.

There are also coding systems for symptoms presents in the diseases and biological findings. They are normally included in medical dictionaries, also with a codification system. Some of them are MeSH (Medical Subject Headings), COSTART (Coding Symbols for Thesaurus of Adverse Reaction Terms) or MedDRA (Medical Dictionary for Regulatory Activities)[2] Other systems like Current Procedural Terminology do not deal directly with diseases but with the related procedures.

Extended nosology and general medical conditions[edit]

In a wide sense, nosology deals not only with diseases, but with any kind of medical condition, like injuries, lesions or disorders.[3][4]

Medical conditions, like diseases, can be defined by etiology (cause), pathogenesis (mechanism by which the disease is caused), or by a collection of symptoms and medical signs, specially when the other two definitions are not available (idiopathic diseases).

From a nosological point of view, medical conditions could be divided in syndromes, diseases, disorders, lesions and injuries, each one with some specific meaning:

In medicine, a disorder is a functional abnormality or disturbance. Medical disorders can be categorized into mental disorders, physical disorders, genetic disorders, emotional and behavioral disorders, and functional disorders. The term disorder is often considered more value-neutral and less stigmatizing than the terms disease or illness, and therefore is a preferred terminology in some circumstances. In mental health, the term mental disorder is used as a way of acknowledging the complex interaction of biological, social, and psychological factors in psychiatric conditions. However, the term disorder is also used in many other areas of medicine, primarily to identify physical disorders that are not caused by infectious organisms, such as metabolic disorders.
The term disease broadly refers to any condition that impairs the normal functioning of the body. For this reason, diseases are associated with dysfunctioning of the body's normal homeostatic process.[5] Commonly, the term disease is used to refer specifically to infectious diseases, which are clinically evident diseases that result from the presence of pathogenic microbial agents, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, multicellular organisms, and aberrant proteins known as prions. An infection that does not and will not produce clinically evident impairment of normal functioning, such as the presence of the normal bacteria and yeasts in the gut, or of a passenger virus, is not considered a disease. By contrast, an infection that is asymptomatic during its incubation period, but expected to produce symptoms later, is usually considered a disease. Non-infectious diseases are all other diseases, including most forms of cancer, heart disease, and genetic disease.
Illness and sickness are generally used as synonyms for disease. However, these terms are occasionally used to refer specifically to the patient's personal experience of his or her disease. In this model, it is possible for a person to have a disease without being ill (to have an objectively definable, but asymptomatic, medical condition), and to be ill without being diseased (such as when a person perceives a normal experience as a medical condition, or medicalizes a non-disease situation in his or her life).
A syndrome is the association of several medical signs, symptoms, and or other characteristics that often occur together. Some syndromes, such as Down syndrome, have only one cause; others, such as Parkinsonian syndrome, have multiple possible causes. In other cases, the cause of the syndrome is unknown. A familiar syndrome name often remains in use even after an underlying cause has been found, or when there are a number of different possible primary causes.
In cases of viral infections, like VIH, it is important to make a difference between the infection (considered as a disease, even while it is silent) and the associated symptoms (a syndrome). In the case of VIH the syndrome is named AIDS
Injury and lesions
Injury is damage to the body. This maybe caused by accidents, falls, hits, weapons, and other causes. Major trauma is injury that has the potential to cause prolonged disability or death. Lesion is any abnormality in the tissue of an organism (in layman's terms, "damage"), usually caused by disease or trauma. Lesion is derived from the Latin word laesio meaning injury. Similar to the ICD-10 the World Health Organization produces the International Classification of External Causes of Injury (ICECI)

Some medical conditions cannot be classified in any of these groups, but they can still be important enough to be considered as medical conditions. For example, to be a carrier of a genetical disease, or a viral infection unable to progress to disease, normally is not considered inside any of the previous groups. Cases of infections able to progress, but with low possibilities, like latent tuberculosis, are also considered outside the category of diseases.

The term "medical condition" can also be applied to physiological states outside the context of disease, as for example when referring to "symptoms of pregnancy". It can also refer to the normal residual scars of a disease after it has resolved, for example lungs fibrosis after a tuberculosis.


The Ayurveda is a collection of early Indian works about medicine. In China the Huangdi Neijing is another ancient text. In the West, Hippocrates was one of the earliest writers on the subject of disease. The Metzora (parsha) also includes an early discussion of the treatment of skin diseases.

In the 10th century the Arabian psychologist Najab ud-din Unhammad classified a nosology of nine major categories of mental disorders, which included 30 different mental illnesses in total. Some of the categories he described included obsessive-compulsive disorders, delusional disorders, degenerative diseases, involutional melancholia, and states of abnormal excitement.[6][verification needed]

In the 18th century, the taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, Francois Boissier de Sauvages, and psychiatrist Philippe Pinel developed an early classification of physical illnesses. Thomas Sydenham's work in the late 17th century might also be considered a nosology. In the 19th century, Emil Kraepelin and then Jacques Bertillon developed their own nosologies. Bertillon's work, classifying causes of death, was a precursor of the modern code system, the International Classification of Diseases.

The early nosological efforts grouped diseases by their symptoms, whereas modern systems (e.g. SNOMED) focus on grouping diseases by the anatomy and etiology involved.


  • Nosology is used extensively in public health, to allow epidemiological studies of public health issues. Analysis of death certificates requires nosological coding of causes of death.
  • Nosological classifications are used in medical administration, such as filing of health insurance claims, and patient records, among others

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ Medical Coding in Clinical Trials, Deven Babre, Perspect Clin Res. 2010 Jan-Mar; 1(1): 29–32.PMCID: PMC3149405 [2]
  3. ^ S E Starkstein, A F G Leentjens, The nosological position of apathy in clinical practice, J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 2008;79:1088-1092 doi:10.1136/jnnp.2007.136895
  4. ^ Abenhaim, Lucien et al. The Prognostic Consequences in the Making of the Initial Medical Diagnosis of Work-Related Back Injuries. Spine Journal, 1995
  5. ^ "Regents Prep: Living Environment: Homeostasis". Oswego City School District Regents Exam Prep Center. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  6. ^ Millon, Theodore (2004), Masters of the Mind: Exploring the Story of Mental Illness from Ancient Times to the New Millennium, John Wiley & Sons, p. 38, ISBN 978-0-471-46985-8 

External links[edit]

  • Snider, G. L. (2003). "Nosology for Our Day". American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 167 (5): 678. doi:10.1164/rccm.200203-204PP. 
  • C. S. Herrman, The Bipolar Spectrum, SSRN (Social Science Research Network, 5 August 2010) [3]
  • International Classification of Diseases by the World Health Organization. [4]