What Is a Physiatrist?

Specialist in Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine

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A physiatrist, also called a rehabilitation physician, is a medical doctor (M.D.) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) who is certified as a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Physiatrists (pronounced fizz-eye-a-trists) are certified by either the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation or the American Osteopathic Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Physical medicine and rehabilitation, also called physiatry, is the area of medicine that deals with the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions associated with temporary or permanent impairment.

Physiatrists are knowledgeable about nerves, muscles, and bones -- basically, the parts of the anatomy which affect mobility and physical function.

From office-based practices, hospitals, or rehabilitation centers, physiatrists treat a wide range of musculoskeletal conditions and other conditions associated with acute or chronic pain. The treatable conditions range from injury to a single joint (e.g., a knee) to complicated spinal cord injury. Conditions that may be treated by a physiatrist include various types of physical pain conditions, such as the more than 100 types of arthritis. A physiatrist may also have patients with cognitive problems, feeding and swallowing issues, communication difficulties, or gait disorders which affect physical function. The problems may be the result of stroke or brain injury. A physiatrist may need to advise caregivers, as well as the patient.

Goals of a Physiatrist

The goal of a physiatrist is to help a patient restore function and overcome physical limitations which resulted from an injury, illness, or any disabling condition.

Physiatrists primarily focus on patients who have physical impairments which affect activities of daily living (e.g., dressing, bathing, eating), as well as work and leisure activities. It is the job of a physiatrist to:

  • diagnose the cause or source of pain and treat the condition non-surgically.
  • restore decreased or lost physical function.
  • treat the whole person to maximize their functional ability.
  • assemble and lead a team of healthcare professionals (including physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, neurologists, rheumatologists, occupational therapists)
  • make sure the patient understands their condition and goals of treatment.

Which Treatments Are Recommended by Physiatrists?

Physiatrists recommend non-surgical treatment options, including:

Is Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation a New Specialty?

The start of physical medicine and rehabilitation dates back to the 1930s to deal with musculoskeletal and neurological problems. After World War II, the field expanded in an effort to return disabled soldiers to productive lives. In 1947, the American Board of Medical Specialties approved Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation as a specialty of medicine.

How Can You Find a Physiatrist?

The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation lists more than 8,000 physiatrists. The AAPM&R has a searchable database organized by state.

The Bottom Line

Physiatrists are in the business of helping you re-gain physical function, stay as active as possible, and essentially get your life back.

The treatment plan is tailored to your specific condition and your specific needs with the ultimate goal of being pain-free and functional. Talk to your primary doctor if you think a referral to a physiatrist could be helpful to your situation.


FAQs About PM&R. American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Accessed 10/27/2015.

What Is a Physiatrist? American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Accessed 10/27/2015.

What Is a Physiatrist? Richard A. Staehler, MD. Spine-health.com. Accessed 10/27/15.

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