How is a Physiatrist different from a Physical Therapist?

The Medical Student's Guide to PM&R

Physiatrists and physical therapists treat patients with the same types of conditions. However, physiatrists are physicians who have completed medical school plus four years of residency training.

A common misconception of physiatrists is that they are the ones who are actually performing the therapies. In general, physical therapists are trained in the clinical features of common musculoskeletal pathology, musculoskeletal examination, developing a treatment plan and exercise regimen, and physical modalities (including heat, cold, TENS). Physiatrists, on the other hand, make and manage medical diagnoses and prescribe the therapies that physical therapists will subsequently perform. Despite these differences, both therapists and physiatrists collaborate and communicate to ensure patients are receiving appropriate treatment.

The role of the physiatrist is to manage a patient’s medical issues as they participate through the rehabilitation process. A physiatrist will assess the patient and assure that the patient is medically stable to participate in therapies. Medical issues specific to rehabilitation include pain management, neurogenic bowel and bladder, spasticity management, and disease education. Furthermore, a physiatrist will manage other co-morbid conditions (e.g., hypertension, diabetes, CAD, COPD, etc.) in order to prevent further medical complications.