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.

Because they are licensed physicians, physiatrics may write prescriptions and do procedures, such as electromyography and lumbar puncture.

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:

  • Sports induced back injury
  • Problems with balance after a stroke
  • Recovery after a heart attack
  • Rehabilitation after a war-induced brain injury
  • Maintaining mobility that's impaired by arthritis
  • Learning to walk after spine surgery or hip replacement surgery

Physiatrists Take a Patient as Person Approach

Physiatrists tend to prescribe conservative care, including medication, exercise, and holistic treatments.

The physiatrist takes a whole-person approach to patient care. Dr. Andre Panagos (physiatrist, and director of the Sports and Spine Medicine of New York) comments, "A physiatrist is the type of doctor who is trained to listen to patients and help them sort out options for the direction of their care. 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 says that physiatry encompasses many disciplines concerned with pain and function— and borrows techniques from neurology, neurosurgery, rheumatology, and orthopedic surgery. The physiatrist, as a quality-of-life doctor, takes a patient-as-person approach when determining the best course of action, he adds.

History

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, 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 concludes.

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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.