What is Physiatry: The Vital Field of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

Updated on February 22, 2023

Physiatry, also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation, is a rapidly growing field that focuses on helping people with disabilities and injuries achieve the highest possible level of physical function and independence. Physiatrists work with patients of all ages and medical conditions, from athletes recovering from sports injuries to elderly individuals rehabilitating after a stroke or other chronic health conditions.

Despite being a relatively new specialty, physiatry has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century and has become an essential part of modern healthcare. In this article, we will explore the field of physiatry, its history, the patients it serves, and the specialized training required to become a physiatrist.

The Journey of Physiatry

The journey of this specialty from its beginnings to the present-day exceptional physiatrists began in the early 20th century when physical medicine and rehabilitative medicine started as two distinct and unofficial fields of medicine. Both focused on the common goal of improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.

In 1938, Frank H. Krusen, one of the pioneers of physical medicine, coined the term physiatry. Its development continued, and physiatrists gained recognition during World War I and II when they treated wounded soldiers. Physiatry was officially established as a medical specialty in 1947. The Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation was formed under the American Board of Medical Specialties’ authority.

The Patients of Physiatrists

Physiatrists treat patients with serious disabilities resulting from amputation, traumatic brain injury, stroke, or spinal cord injury. The physiatrist leads a team of medical professionals, including speech therapists, occupational, physical, and recreational therapists, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.

In addition, physiatrists can perform outpatient procedures on people with injuries to their joints or muscles, pain-causing syndromes, wounds that aren’t healing, or other problems causing partial disability. The aim is to restore enough functionality to allow the patient to live a full and satisfying life.

The Training of Physiatrists

After obtaining a pre-medical degree, physiatrists spend one year as an intern receiving general medical training and four years in a physical medicine and rehabilitation residency. During residency, each student receives basic skills training and specialized training in their chosen field.

All residents receive training in an inpatient setting in various types of rehabilitation, including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, severe burns, cancer, strokes, and pediatric rehabilitation.

Residents will also specialize in one of the seven accredited sub-specialties recognized in the U.S.: sports medicine, pain medicine, neuromuscular medicine, brain injury, spinal cord injury, pediatric rehabilitation medicine, and hospice and palliative medicine. Specialized training provides a higher level of expertise.

Despite being a relatively new field of medicine, physiatry is a vital specialty that enables people with disabilities from birth or because of an accident, trauma, or disease to enjoy a better quality of life than they would without treatment.

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