What is the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Physiatry

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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 and other 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, autonomic dysreflexia, dysphagia, gait and movement disorders, ataxia, spasticity management, energy conservation, 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.

In 2017, the Academy announced a BOLD new vision for physiatry defined by you! Within this new vision, are 3 themes which help better define the specialty and its role in the future of medicine.

Physiatrists are the essential medical experts in value-based evaluation, diagnosis, and management of neuromusculoskeletal and disabling conditions.

Physiatrists are indispensable leaders in directing rehabilitation and recovery, and in preventing injury and disease.

Physiatrists are vital in optimizing outcomes and function early and throughout the continuum of patient care.