FAQs about PM&R

Here are some answers to questions frequently asked about the specialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation:

What is physical medicine and rehabilitation?

Physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R), also called physiatry, is the branch of medicine emphasizing the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disorders – particularly related to the nerves, muscles, and bones – that may produce temporary or permanent impairment. PM&R is one of 24 medical specialties certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties. PM&R provides integrated care in the treatment of conditions related to the brain, muscles, and bones, spanning from traumatic brain injury to lower back pain.

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What is a rehabilitation physician?

Rehabilitation physicians are nerve, muscle, and bone experts who treat injuries or illnesses that affect how you move. Rehabilitation physicians have completed training in the medical specialty physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R). They are sometimes referred to as PM&R physicians or physiatrists.

Rehabilitation physicians treat a wide range of problems from sore shoulders to spinal cord injuries. Their goal is to decrease pain and enhance performance without surgery. To learn about some of the conditions rehabilitation physicians treat, click here.

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What kind of training do rehabilitation physicians have?

To become a rehabilitation physician, individuals must graduate from medical school followed by four additional years of postdoctoral training in a physical medicine and rehabilitation residency. This includes one year developing fundamental clinical skills and three additional years of training in the full scope of the specialty. There are currently 80 accredited residency programs in physical medicine and rehabilitation in the United States. Many rehabilitation physicians choose to pursue additional advanced degrees (MS, PhD) or complete fellowship training in a specific area of the specialty. Fellowships are available for specialized study in such areas as musculoskeletal rehabilitation, pediatrics, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, and sports medicine.

To become board certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, rehabilitation physicians are required to take both a written and oral examination administered by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (ABPMR). The ABPMR also has agreements with each of the boards of pediatrics, internal medicine, and neurology to allow special training programs leading to certification in both specialties. Additionally, Rehabilitation physicians can also obtain subspecialty certification in Brain Injury Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Neuromuscular Medicine, Pain Medicine, Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine, Spinal Cord Injury Medicine, and/or Sports Medicine.​ To find out why it is important to see a physician who is board certified, click here.

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How do rehabilitation physicians diagnose?

PM&R physicians diagnose and treat medical conditions associated with disabilities.  These might include: cognitive problems, orthopedic anomalies, mobility concerns, bowel and bladder issues, gait disorders, feeding and swallowing problems, communication difficulties, pain, and muscle stiffness or hypotonia.  Physiatrists work collaboratively with neurologists, orthopedists, neurosurgeons, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech therapists, and primary care physicians to look at the “big picture” of improving function, and often create a medical home for complicated patients.  Physiatrists address caregiving, mobility, activities of daily living like dressing, bathing and eating, educational and vocational, and lifespan issues.

Physiatrists prescribe medications for muscle and nerve problems, attention and memory issues, behavior , sleep, pain, bowel and bladder concerns, respiratory or gastrointestinal issues, and many other medical problems, just like other physicians. In particular, we specialize in spasticity management.  This includes prescribing specialized medications and invasive procedures. 

Physiatrists prescribe braces/splints to improve arm or leg position or function, and prosthetics for limb loss. We prescribe equipment such as wheelchairs, standers, walkers, bath benches, lifts, etc. that enable caregivers and patients to move or be cared for more safely.  Physiatrists advise about school and vocational programming, and behavioral and cognitive/learning issues.

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What is the rehabilitation physician’s role in treatment?

Once they have a diagnosis, rehabilitation physicians design a treatment plan that can be carried out by the patients themselves or with the help of the rehabilitation physician’s medical team. This interdisciplinary medical team may include medical professionals such as neurologists, psychiatrists, orthopedic surgeons, and urologists, and non-physician health professionals such as physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, vocational counselors, psychologists and social workers. The team is different for each patient, and the team's composition changes during treatment to match the patient's shifting needs. By providing an appropriate treatment plan, rehabilitation physicians help patients stay as active as possible at any age. Their broad medical expertise allows them to treat disabling conditions throughout a person’s lifetime.

To learn more about a rehabilitation physician’s role in treatment and why you might choose such treatment, click here.

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What is the scope of the rehabilitation physician’s practice?

PM&R is often called the quality of life profession because its aim is to enhance patient performance. These specialists treat any disability resulting from disease or injury involving any organ system. The focus is not on one part of the body, but instead on the development of a comprehensive program for putting the pieces of a person's life back together – medically, socially, emotionally, and vocationally – after injury or disease. Rehabilitation physicians manage issues that span the entire spectrum, from complicated multiple trauma to injury prevention for athletes. Some rehabilitation physicians have broad-based practices that encompass many different types of patients. Others pursue special interests and focus on specific groups or problems. For example, sports medicine has grown as a special interest. Rehabilitation physicians who focus on sports medicine treat sports-related injuries, develop programs to help athletes avoid injury, and may do research in the field.

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How did the specialty develop?

The field of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) began in the 1930s to address musculoskeletal and neurological problems, but broadened its scope considerably after World War II. As thousands of veterans came back to the United States with serious disabilities, the task of helping to restore them to productive lives became a new direction for the field. The American Board of Medical Specialties granted PM&R its approval as a specialty of medicine in 1947.

To learn more about the history of PM&R, click here.

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Where do rehabilitation physicians practice?

Rehabilitation physicians practice in rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and in private offices. They often have broad practices, but some concentrate on one area such as pediatrics, sports medicine, geriatric medicine, brain injury, and many other special interests.

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How can I locate a rehabilitation physician?

The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPM&R) represents more than 8,000 rehabilitation physicians. As a public service, AAPM&R provides listings of its member rehabilitation physicians by state

Click here for our online "Find a PM&R Physician" searchable database.

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