Frequently Asked Questions about Physiatry
What is Physiatry?
Physiatry, also known as rehabilitation medicine, is a branch of medicine
that is dedicated to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of all types of
disabilities related to the brain, nerves, bones and muscles. Physiatry takes a
holistic, multi-faceted approach to care that focuses on how a patient's
medical condition affects every aspect of their life, including their role in
the workplace, home and everyday activities. Physiatry combines physical
therapy and pain treatments to help patients avoid surgery. The goal of
physiatry is to maximize physical functioning, greatly decrease or eliminate
pain, foster independence, and improve the quality of life for those suffering
with a disability, chronic pain and physical impairments.
What is a physiatrist?
A physiatrist is a medical doctor that specializes in the field of physical
medicine and rehabilitation. Physiatrists are fully trained medical doctors
who, following medical school graduation, undergo four years of post graduate
training in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation through an accredited
internship and residency training program. Through this training they are able
to bring to patient care a broad knowledge of medicine, biomechanics,
musculoskeletal function, anatomy and comprehensive knowledge of
musculoskeletal and neurological disorders.
Physiatrists are specialist physicians who treat patients that have had
injuries or suffer from disabilities that affect physical and cognitive
functioning. Physiatrists employ a combination of physical therapy treatments,
medication management and a host of procedures including soft tissue, muscle,
nerve and spine injections to treat a variety of disorders.
How do physiatrists diagnose patients?
In addition to the usual diagnostic tools used by physicians (physical
examinations, imaging studies and medical history), physiatrists use techniques
electrodiagnostic medicine, and nerve conduction studies. These
highly specialized diagnostic tools help the physiatrist diagnose nerve
conditions that cause pain, weakness and numbness that lead to physical
impairment such as carpal tunnel syndrome and radiculopathy (pinched nerve) in
What is the role of the physiatrist?
A physiatrist focuses on the "whole person", taking into account all aspects
of a patient's life that may be affected by their disability or chronic pain.
The goal of treatment is to help patients live a more functional, pain-free
life without necessarily having to undergo surgery. After diagnosing a patient,
a physiatrist will create a specialized treatment plan tailored to the
individual needs of the patient. Physiatrists work closely with other types of
physicians and are embedded in every department across the Penn Medicine health
system. Our physiatrists collaborate closely with primary care physicians,
occupational medicine physicians, orthopaedic surgeons, cardiologists,
oncologists, neurosurgeons and neurologists to provide seamless,
What types of treatments and procedures does a physiatrist perform?
Physiatrists perform and prescribe the following diagnostic tests and
- Therapeutic exercise
- Pain medications
- EMG (electromyography)
- NCS (nerve conduction studies)
- Soft tissue injections
- Joint injections
- Spine injections
- Musculoskeletal ultrasound
- Interventional spinal therapeutics
- Spasticity management
What are the most common medical conditions treated by a physiatrist?
Physiatrists diagnose and treat a variety of patients with many types of
disorders such as:
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Brain injuries
- Neuromuscular disorders
- Sports injuries
- Spinal cord injuries
- Carpal tunnel
- Herniated disc
- Pinched nerve in the neck or back
- Work injuries
- Parkinson's disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Cancer rehabilitation
- Pelvic floor disorders
How do physiatrists differ from physical therapists?
Physiatrists are medical doctors who have gone through medical school and
have completed training in the specialty field of physical medicine and
rehabilitation. Physiatrists diagnose illnesses, design treatment protocols and
can prescribe medications. Physiatrists design exercise programs tailored to
the patients needs and prescribe treatment regimens that are utilized by
therapists. A physical therapist is not a medical doctor and cannot prescribe
medications but supervises and institutes exercise programs aimed at
ameliorating symptoms and improving function. A physical therapist conducts
treatment protocols that are prescribed by physiatrists and other
How do you know when to see a physiatrist?
You should seek treatment from a physiatrist if:
- You have experienced an injury that causes pain and/or impedes physical
- You have an illness, disability, or experienced treatment for an illness
that has left you with limited physical functioning and pain.
- You are experiencing chronic back pain, neck pain, pain from a repetitive
stress injury, or chronic pain from arthritis.
- You have experienced a stroke or other nerve damage that limits physical
- You are recovering from surgery.
- You are contemplating surgery as a means to diminish chronic pain.
Do patients of all ages see a physiatrist?
Physiatrists treat patients of all ages including children.
How do I find a physiatrist?
Meet our team of Penn Medicine
physiatrists. To request an appointment use our
form or call 800-789-7366 (PENN) to schedule an appointment.
What is gait analysis?
Gait analysis uses advanced technology to analyze the body's movement, force production and muscle activity during walking.