From serious injuries to medical events, many conditions can limit mobility and seriously impact quality of life. Medical rehabilitation is an essential aspect of patient care and recovery. Two key figures often play an important role in this process — physiatrists and physical therapists. However, most patients don't know the difference between these two medical professionals.

Physiatry vs. Physical Therapy

Another way to word this would be PM&R vs. PT. Physiatry or physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) is the medical branch focused on restoring functional ability and enhancing the quality of life for those struggling with disabilities or physical impairments. However, a physiatrist does far more than this simple definition implies.

Physical therapy, or physiotherapy (PT), is not a branch of medicine but a medical treatment. The goal of PT is to restore a patient's functional movement related to an injury, condition or disability.

Let's explore physiatrists vs. physical therapists and learn the distinct roles these individuals play in helping those struggling with injury, disease or chronic pain.

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At the core of the rehabilitation process is PM&R. A physiatrist is a medical doctor trained in rehabilitation. These medical professionals can diagnose and treat musculoskeletal issues and see the bigger picture of how this system relates to other bodily systems.

Once they pinpoint the injury or medical condition, physiatrists map out a treatment plan for rehabilitation. Throughout recovery, a physiatrist heads the medical team and continues monitoring and managing the patient's progress.

Whether it's a sports injury, chronic pain or surgery, physiatrists assess patients and ensure a seamless rehabilitation.

Physical Therapist

Once a physiatrist has coordinated a patient's rehabilitation plan, they may refer them to a physical therapist. Physical therapists use the information a physiatrist provides to assist and coach patients through targeted therapies in body areas where mobility needs improvement. They also serve as the patient's go-to support during recovery.

No two plans are alike, and physical therapists employ various treatment methods to strengthen muscles, restore flexibility and improve mobility and dexterity. These could include:

  • Manual therapies and manipulation.
  • Massage and heat therapies.
  • Strengthening exercises.
  • Electrotherapies, such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.

Physiatrists also work to prevent disability and improve the overall health and well-being of patients.

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Other Differences Between Physiatrists and Physical Therapists

While both physiatrists and physical therapists are medical experts in the rehabilitation field, there are many distinct differences between these two professions. 



A physiatrist is a licensed, board-certified medical doctor. Thus, there is a significant difference in the degree of education and medical training between the professions. Physiatrists complete medical school, internship and residency over many years. Physical therapists complete a post-graduate degree, which requires three years of extensive training before they earn their license. 

Both physiatrists and physical therapists learn about the body's musculoskeletal system and how the neurological and cardiovascular systems impact musculoskeletal issues. They both receive specialized training in rehabilitation techniques and treatments.

However, as medical practitioners, physiatrists can prescribe medication and perform specialized nonsurgical techniques, such as therapeutic injections. 



A patient's first point of contact in their rehabilitation plan is the physiatrist. This professional provides the initial examination that informs the treatment program, which includes detailed information about a patient's medical history, a physical examination and any diagnostic tests needed. 

Once this comprehensive step is complete, physiatrists gather other health care providers who can assist in their patient's recovery — which may include a physical therapist. 

While a physical therapist can also perform their own assessment, including range of motion, reflexes and strength, they rely on the information provided by the physiatrist before beginning PT.


Frequency of Visits

A physiatrist is intimately involved in a patient's recovery. However, patients see them less frequently than their physical therapist. Physiatrists provide the initial evaluation and work with individuals to establish rehabilitation goals. Patients may require PT daily, every few days or over several weeks, making the physical therapist a more frequent presence. 



Physiatrists head rehabilitation by diagnosing, treating and managing a patient's medical condition and recommending treatment. Once the comprehensive plan is in place, they continue to oversee its execution and assess its effectiveness.

Because of the ongoing nature of physical therapy, therapists often serve as a point of contact between patients and their physiatrists. Physical therapists perform the bulk of physical rehabilitation techniques. However, physiatrists oversee treatment and are kept in the loop throughout PT. 

Learn More About an Exciting Career in Physiatry With Medrina

While physical therapy will always be an essential aspect of rehabilitation, there is a growing need for physiatrists to lead patients' recovery efforts. Connect with Medrina today and take your first steps into the exciting world of PM&R.