What Is a Physical Medicine Rehab Doctor?

May 25 2023

Physiatrists, also known as ‘Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PMR) physicians specialize in rehabilitative care  that helps patients improve their mobility and function. Without the expertise of these medical professionals, many patients wouldn't receive the care they need to improve their well-being and achieve their rehabilitation goals. Despite the increasing popularity in the field, physiatrists are still one of the lesser-known medical specialties, even among other doctors.

Below, you'll learn more about these doctors, the conditions they treat and how you can start a career as a physiatrist to help patients improve their well-being.


What Is Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation?

Physical medicine and rehabilitation, also called PM&R, is a medical specialty that focuses on eliminating a patient's barriers to independence and functionality. Physiatrists and the rehabilitation team work closely together to help patients achieve the levels of function necessary to leave a hospital in an inpatient setting. Physiatrists will typically work with a rehabilitation team that includes rehabilitation nurses, and physical, occupational or speech therapists.

Patients who would benefit from the help of rehab physicians are those  needing a minimum of two therapy disciplines and help from a physician to manage their acute medical issues. The medical needs depend on the specific conditions of each patient. For example, patients who have experienced brain injuries may need medication management to handle the onset of spasticity or agitation. Patients in an inpatient setting for a spinal cord injury may experience challenges participating in therapy exercises due to autonomic instability.

Other patients in rehabilitation programs who need medical assistance can include those who have experienced car accidents, strokes and acute neurological diseases.

PM&R physicians can also provide care in the outpatient world to help patients and their families improve and maintain their functioning. Sometimes, they will offer a continuation of care for patients who may have been in an acute or subacute setting.

What Is a Physical Medicine Rehab Doctor?


What Is a Physical Medicine Rehab Doctor?

A physical medicine rehab or PM&R doctor specializes in physical-based rehabilitation and recovery. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation doctors are also known as physiatrists. Before practicing in the PM&R field, these doctors complete a four year residency and achieve board certification. 

These doctors typically manage patients with musculoskeletal conditions by working with physical therapists, prescribing medications, or performing interventional procedures.  The focus is similar to orthopedic doctors, but with a nonoperative approach.

In addition to musculoskeletal conditions, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation doctors can treat other conditions, including nervous system disorders or injuries. Physiatrists focus on improving the functionality and mobility of their patients while reducing their symptoms.

Many physiatrists have subspecialties, meaning they have additional expertise in a focused arena of physiatry. Some of these subspecialties include spinal cord injury medicine, sports medicine, pediatric rehabilitation medicine and brain injury medicine.


The Physiatrist's Approach

Physiatrists typically study the musculoskeletal system and focus on providing proactive care for their patients. The goal is to help restore a patient's function, so a physiatrist will diagnose a patient's condition and devise a treatment plan to help their patients improve their mobility. They'll perform physical exams and get to know each patient's medical history and current symptoms. Then they can prescribe medications and administer treatments to help patients restore their functions through rehabilitation.

Physiatrists will significantly focus on rehabilitation and natural methods to help repair and strengthen a patient's body. Physiatrists develop a positive relationship with patients and create a treatment plan that's ideal for the patient's needs. There isn't a one-size-fits-all treatment for patients since their conditions vary. They'll receive a customized treatment that often includes various methods based on the symptoms of their condition.

Treatments Utilized

These doctors have a specialized approach when treating illnesses, injuries or diseases. In addition to prescribing rehabilitation therapies, they often use minimally invasive techniques to help patients find relief and improve their functioning. Some techniques a physiatrist might try include:

  • Joint injections
  • Nerve blocks
  • Spinal injections
  • Trigger point injections

Some more specific treatments a physiatrist might use to treat a patient's conditions include:

  • Prolotherapy
  • Spasticity treatments
  • Nerve and muscle biopsies
  • Epidural steroid injections in the back and neck
  • Injections in joints
  • Discography
  • Radiofrequency neurotomy
  • Medication prescriptions
  • Guidance on orthotics and prosthetics
  • Nerve ablation procedures


How Can You Pursue PM&R?

Becoming a physiatrist is ideal for treating a broad range of conditions. If you're interested in starting a career in PM&R, the best way to pursue a career is to immerse yourself in the field. Unlike other medical areas, rehabilitation is not typically required as a rotation for medical students. If your current medical school doesn't have rehabilitation programs, you can apply for away rotations to help achieve these requirements.

Ideally, you'll want to complete your rehabilitation requirements at the earliest part of your MS4 year, mainly because you'll want to obtain letters of application for your residency application.

To make professional connections, you can also seek research opportunities in the PM&R specialty. PM&R research includes more than just working from a laboratory workbench. Some research opportunities include modalities such as virtual reality to help engage prospective students.

To apply for a residency, you'll have to follow a few steps, including:

Finding an accredited residency program: First, you'll need to choose a residency program that's accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). You can find these programs by talking with current PM&R residents attending your institution or using databases that list residency programs.

Selecting a program for application: Once you've found different residency programs, you can select a program for submitting your application. You can seek advice for your medical school advisor, talk with PM&R faculty and check program websites for application submission tips. You'll also want to consider your area of interest and the academic environment of the residency you're interested in before making a final decision.

Interviewing: Most PM&R programs begin interviewing in October or November, though some will start in January or February. You'll want to check your email during the season, so you don't miss it. You'll also want to prepare for the interview, including a few specific questions for your interviewer, as they will usually ask and expect that you have them. 

Going through the match program: After your interviews, you must prepare and submit a ranking list of your ideal programs to the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). Typically, the Match process for PM&R is quite simple, and most medical school seniors can match into their program. However, keep in mind that PM&R has become more popular throughout the years and, as a result, may start becoming more competitive.

Start a Career in Physiatry: Contact Medrina Today


Start a Career in Physiatry: Contact Medrina Today

If you're interested in starting a career in physiatry, Medrina is here to help. We have a full-scale physiatry program and are always looking for passionate people who are newly emerging from residency. Our physiatry program helps provide consistent care to improve our quality of care. We aim to improve patient outcomes in skilled nursing facilities across the country.

We've established our program to provide quality care for a medically complex community in the population, working collaboratively with nursing staff, patients and families to maximize their experience and outcomes. If you're looking for a career in physiatry to make a difference in people's lives, contact us today!

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