Difference Between Anatomy and Physiology

Anatomy Versus Physiology

Simply put, anatomy is the study of the physical structures of the body, while physiology is the study of how the body works.
Simply put, anatomy is the study of the physical structures of the body, while physiology is the study of how the body works. Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Anatomy and physiology are two related biology disciplines. Many college courses teach them together, so it's easy to be confused about the difference between them. Simply put, anatomy is the study of the structure and identity of body parts, while physiology is the study of how these parts function and relate to one another.

Anatomy is a branch of the field of morphology. Morphology encompasses the internal and outward appearance of an organism (e.g., is shape, size, pattern) as well as form and location of external and internal structures (e.g., bones and organs -- anatomy). A specialist in anatomy is called an anatomist. Anatomists gather information from living and deceased organisms, typically using dissection to master internal structure.

The two branches of anatomy are macroscopic or gross anatomy and microscopic anatomy. Gross anatomy focuses on the body as a whole and the identification and description of body parts large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Microscopic anatomy focuses on cellular structures, which may be observed using histology and various types of microscopy.

Physiologists need to understand anatomy because the form and location of cells, tissues, and organs is related to function. In a combined course, anatomy tends to be covered first. If the courses are separate, anatomy may be a prerequisite for physiology. The study of physiology requires living specimens and tissues. While an anatomy lab is primarily concerned with dissection, a physiology lab may include experimentation to determine the reaction of cells or systems to change. There are many branches of physiology. For example, a physiologist may focus on the excretory system or the reproductive system.

Anatomy and physiology work hand-in-hand. An x-ray technician might discover an unusual lump (change in gross anatomy), leading to a biopsy in which the tissue would be examined on a microscopic level for abnormalities (microscopic anatomy) or a test looking for a disease marker in the urine or blood (physiology).

Studying Anatomy and Physiology

College biology, pre-med, and pre-vet students often take a combined course called A&P (Anatomy and Physiology). This anatomy portion of the course is typically comparative, where students examine homologous and analogous structures in a variety of organisms (e.g., fish, frog, shark, rat or cat). Increasingly, dissections are being replaced by interactive computer programs (virtual dissections). Physiology may be either comparative physiology or human physiology. In medical school, students progress to study human gross anatomy, which involves dissection of a cadaver.

In addition to taking A&P as a single course, it's also possible to specialize in them. A typical anatomy degree program includes courses in embryology, gross anatomy, microanatomy, physiology, and neurobiology. Graduates with advanced degrees in anatomy may become researchers, healthcare educators, or continue their education to become medical doctors. Physiology degrees may be granted at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral level. Typical courses may include cell biology, molecular biology, exercise physiology, and genetics. A bachelor's degree in physiology can lead to entry-level research or placement in a hospital or insurance company. Advanced degrees may lead to careers in research, exercise physiology, or teaching. A degree in either anatomy or physiology is good preparation for studies in the fields of physical therapy, orthopedic medicine, or sports medicine.