Should You See a Physiatrist?

A physiatrist is a physician who is trained in physical medicine and rehabilitation. Physiatrists assess and treat conditions associated with musculoskeletal or neurological disease, often using a team-based approach that involves other healthcare professionals, such as physical therapists.

Physiatrics may prescribe exercise therapy, write medication prescriptions and do procedures, such as electromyography, lumbar puncture, and joint or spine injections.

Physical therapist taking notes with patient examination room
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Why See a Physiatrist

The conditions a physiatrist manages are varied. Your physiatrist may direct your rehabilitation after an injury or an illness. For example, you might need to see a physiatrist if you are recovering from a serious injury or living with a degenerative disease.

Conditions a physiatrist may manage include:

Physiatry Training

Physiatrists are physicians who have completed college, followed by four years of medical school. After obtaining an MD or DO, a physiatrist completes four years of residency training. Then they take an examination to become board certified to practice physiatry.

Physiatrist Approach

Your physiatry care will begin with a diagnostic assessment, which can include talking about your symptoms, reviewing your medical records, and a physical examination. If necessary, you will also have diagnostic tests.

Then your physiatrist will prescribe a treatment plan, along with a schedule for follow-up and monitoring of your progress. Physiatrists tend to prescribe a combination of therapies, including medication, exercise, and holistic treatments.

Dr. Andre Panagos (physiatrist, and director of the Sports and Spine Medicine of New York) said, "Often the physiatrist leads a multidisciplinary treatment team that may consist of other doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, and holistic practitioners. In the age of increasingly complicated treatments, this multidisciplinary approach yields benefits for both the patients and the healthcare community."

Panagos explained that physiatry encompasses care for patient pain and physical function.

History of Physiatry

Physiatry got its start during World War II when Dr. Howard Rusk, an Army Air Corps medical doctor concerned about the dignity of injured soldiers, began treating them with innovative methods that included psychological, emotional, and social aspects of healing. In his career, Dr. Rusk functioned not only as a doctor, but also as an advocate for soldiers with disabilities.

To this day, physiatrists still see soldiers who have traumatic injuries of all kinds, including spinal cord injury and brain injury. However, most physiatrists primarily take care of non-military patients who have acute and chronic conditions.

With nearly 10,000 physiatrists practicing in the United States, this medical specialty is a small field and a well-kept secret, Panagos explained.

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  • Rusk, Howard, A. (1901-1989), Papers, 1937-1991 (C3981). Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Columbia. University of Missouri.

  • Dr. Andre Panagos. Phone and email interviews. 2008.
  • Howard A. Rusk, M.D. (1901-1989) Founder. Rusk Institute of Medicine at NYU website.
  • PM&R Specialty Background. American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation website.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.