What Is a Physiatrist?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 08, 2021

Chronic pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care. It reduces your quality of life and restricts daily activities, contributing to higher rates of depression and anxiety. Untreated pain is also associated with an increased risk of health problems like heart disease, respiratory infections, and reduced mobility. 

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physicians, also called physiatrists or PM&R physicians, diagnose the cause of pain and develop a comprehensive treatment plan. They have broad medical expertise to help patients with a range of pain-causing conditions that can occur at any age.

What Does a Physiatrist Do?

Many issues can cause pain, like injury, illness, or medical conditions such as those related to the brain, spinal cord, nerves, bones, joints, and muscular system. A physiatrist can identify what’s causing pain and help a person manage and treat the issue, with the goal of recovering mobility and functional well-being.

To do this, the physiatrist focuses on the whole body — not just a single problem area — and assembles a treatment team to optimize care and recovery, which can include:

A physiatrist’s treatment plan is very specific to an individual patient. Depending on the root of the problem, a physiatrist may focus on:

Education and Training

As medical doctors, physiatrists must graduate from medical school before continuing in their specialized training. This process involves:

  • Four years of medical or osteopathic medical school
  • An additional four years of postdoctoral training in a physical rehabilitation residency
  • Gaining board certification with the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation or the American Osteopathic Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Many physiatrists will pursue more graduate training or complete fellowships in specific areas, like pediatrics, traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, or sports medicine

Reasons to See a Physiatrist

Physiatrists design a treatment plan to improve your quality of life, whether pain or discomfort stems from chronic health conditions, aging-related mobility issues, or short-term pain from an injury.

You may benefit from seeing a physiatrist if: 

You Struggle with Everyday Activities

Accidents or injuries sometimes leave us with pain or limited function, impacting normal activities like getting up, taking the stairs, or resting comfortably. A physiatrist can help design a treatment plan to overcome these issues. They can also help manage ongoing discomfort caused by specific issues like back pain, obesity, nerve damage, stroke, and arthritis.

You Have Limited Energy Due to Illness

Many illnesses and their treatments can cause limited energy. Fatigue can make it more difficult for you to move easily, avoid injury, or reach your exercise goals.

You Have a  aScheduled Surgery or are in Recovery from Surgery

Surgery is traumatic for your body. Building a surgical plan with a physiatrist can prepare your body and streamline your path to recovery.

You’re Going Through a Life Change

Life changes like pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, and aging can create new challenges to physical function. 

What to Expect at the Physiatrist

With their broad training, physiatrists provide general medical treatment to treat pain and prevent further disability. At your first appointment, the doctor will speak to you about your medical and family history to learn more about what may be causing a problem. 

You should also voice your goals for treatment, whether that’s relieving back pain or strengthening muscle performance. Physiatrists work to help you overcome personal setbacks keeping you from living a full life — and what that means to an individual patient guides the best course of treatment.  

If a diagnosis is needed, the doctor may run tests like X-rays, nerve conduction studies, and electromyography to identify the cause of a problem, informing the next steps for a recovery plan. They also look at your holistic health to work around — and improve symptoms of — underlying conditions like diabetes or arthritis. 

This approach guides tailored treatment options like:

  • At-home care programs  
  • Specialized treatment to be carried out by a specialist, like a physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon
  • Mental health care to help you cope with a condition and respond to treatment
  • Alternative therapies like medical acupuncture

Physiatrists may also offer in-office injections including: 

Show Sources


American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: “FAQs About Physiatry.”

American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: “What Conditions Do Physiatrists Treat?”

American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: “What is a Physiatrist.”

American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: “What Makes the Practice of Physiatry Multidisciplinary.”

American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: “What Types of Treatments and Procedures Do Physiatrists Perform.”

American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: “Why Visit a PM&R Physician”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report:  “Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults — United States, 2016.”

PLoS Medicine: “Untreated Pain, Narcotics Regulation, and Global Health Ideologies.”

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