What are Rehabilitation Physicians?

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  • Written By: Amy Hunter
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 10 August 2019
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A rehabilitation physician is also known as a physiatrist. Rehabilitation physicians are medical doctors who work to develop function in people with disabilities, and to help those who have suffered from debilitating injuries or illnesses to regain function. Rehabilitation physicians work with people who have suffered from strokes, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and sports related injuries.

Within the profession of rehabilitation physicians, there are several specialties. In the United States, six of these specialties are officially recognized. They include pain medicine, pediatric rehabilitation, spinal cord injury rehabilitation, sports medicine, neuromuscular medicine, and hospice and palliative care. Other specialties, not officially recognized, can include amputee rehabilitation, musculoskeletal medicine, traumatic brain injury rehabilitation, and cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. Electrodiagnostics is another unrecognized specialty where the physician receives training to use electromyography as a diagnostic tool.

Rehabilitation physicians are often seen as the team leaders in groups of health care providers that work to help a patient regain a productive lifestyle after an illness or injury. Depending on the illness, rehabilitation physicians may work with other physicians such as orthopedic surgeons or neurologists, as well as physical, occupational and speech therapists, and social workers. The goal of the team is to help the patient regain as much functionality as possible.


Rehabilitation physicians use a variety of skills to help their patients. These include medications, exercise and orthotics, as well as training in using assistive devices, and explaining how some modifications of activity may be inevitable. If the patient never regains full function, the team works to help the patient devise ways to meet their new challenges. The length of time that someone receives care from a rehabilitation physician depends on a variety of factors, including the willingness of insurance to continue to cover the costs, and how much progress the patient shows while in therapy.

There are over 8,000 board certified rehabilitation physicians in the US. A board certified physician has passed both a written and oral examination by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. For physicians interested in one of the sub-specialties in rehabilitation medicine, the ABPM&R has a reciprocity agreement that allows the physicians to participate in specialized training and receive certification in both rehabilitation medicine and internal medicine, pediatrics, or neurology.


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