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 such as 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 the spine.

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, patient-centered care.

What types of treatments and procedures does a physiatrist perform?

Physiatrists perform and prescribe the following diagnostic tests and treatments:

  • Therapeutic exercise
  • Prosthetics/orthotics
  • 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
  • Strokes
  • Brain injuries
  • Neuromuscular disorders
  • Sports injuries
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Arthritis
  • Carpal tunnel
  • Herniated disc
  • Pinched nerve in the neck or back
  • Sciatica
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Work injuries
  • Amputees
  • 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 physicians.

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 functioning.
  • 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 functioning.
  • 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?

To request an appointment use our online 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.

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