Rehab Select Blog

Physiatrist vs Physical Therapist: 5 Major Differences

Posted by Bobby Stephenson

Nov 1, 2018 9:00:00 AM

Physiatrist vs Physical TherapistIf you have mobility limitations after an injury or medical event, your healthcare team may recommend visits with both a physiatrist and physical therapist to get you moving again. Your first question might be, what’s the difference between the two? Can I just go to one or the other, rather than both?

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Both physiatrists and physical therapists use their medical expertise to help restore your movement, prevent injury, and improve your overall health. Though their end goal may be similar, the differences between the two professions are markedly different and involve separate modes of care. 

5 Top Differences Between Physiatrists and Physical Therapists


The first major difference between physiatrists and physical therapists is their medical training. A physiatrist is a licensed, board-certified medical doctor who has completed medical school and a required internship and residency. A physical therapist completes a three-year post-graduate degree in physical therapy and must earn their certification.

While both medical providers know the body’s musculoskeletal system inside and out, a physiatrist’s more extensive training gives them even greater in-depth knowledge about the structure and function of the human body. They also have an intimate understanding about how the nervous, cardiovascular, and other systems affect the musculoskeletal system.

As physical medicine and rehabilitation practitioners, physiatrists also have the ability to prescribe medication and perform additional non-surgical therapies like injections, which physical therapists don’t have. Physical therapists use advanced tools like traction and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), but they must refer you to your physiatrist who can administer prescription-level therapies. If you have complicated medical needs, you'll appreciate having a physiatrist at hand.


A physiatrist takes the leading role in diagnosing, treating, and managing musculoskeletal issues. Your MD designs a comprehensive treatment plan based on their findings, oversees its execution, and assesses its effectiveness. They check in with you and your physical therapist at intervals during your inpatient stay to make sure their plan is working.

Your physical therapist is responsible for executing the treatment plan provided by your physiatrist. During physical therapy sessions, you can expect to perform the bulk of the actual physical rehabilitation techniques including specialized exercises and hands-on procedures.

Initial Visit

In your sequence of care, your visit with the physiatrist comes before physical therapy. As an integral part of your care team, your physiatrist gathers detailed information from your medical history, physical exam, and diagnostic testing during your first visit to formulate a treatment regimen.  

A physiatrist takes a comprehensive look at all facets of your health before diagnosing or treating you. From there, your physiatrist can assemble a team of healthcare providers to help restore your physical abilities, including a physical therapist, among other specialists

After you see your physiatrist, you may also have an evaluation with your physical therapist. They might perform a few of their own assessments to check your strength, muscle balance, reflexes, and range of motion. Using the information from your physiatrist and their own assessments, they will then begin your first therapy session.


Physical therapists don’t diagnose medical conditions, but physiatrists do. A physiatrist uses diagnostic tools like X-ray, nerve conduction studies, and electromyography to identify the underlying medical conditions that require rehabilitation.

Your physiatrist looks at your whole health picture and takes co-existing health issues into account to design a treatment protocol. They help you and your physical therapist work around conditions like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and COPD. They also offer a variety of non-surgical techniques for pain management.

In cases like diabetic limb amputation that require specialized care, a physiatrist plays a key role in your recovery. They supply all the tools you need to regain function, from prosthetic devices to pain management.

Your physical therapist uses the diagnostic information and recommendations provided by your doctor and physiatrist to carry out their part of your treatment. They can help you use a prosthetic or assistive device and modify your treatment programming with your physiatrist's advice. 

Frequency of Visits

You will likely see your physiatrist much less frequently than you see your physical therapist.

You can expect to visit your physiatrist for your initial evaluation and for occasional check-ins until you’ve reached your rehabilitation goals. 

You’ll see your physical therapist regularly, whether that’s daily or every few days, over the course of several weeks. Your therapist provides frequent ongoing support and acts as your point-of-contact between you and your physiatrist.

Physiatry and Physical Therapy at Rehab Select

Hopefully now you have a better picture of where your physiatrist and physical therapist fit in your overall care plan. They each play a critical, distinct role in your rehabilitation that can’t be substituted or omitted.

At Rehab Select, you have access to an on-site physiatrist to oversee your rehabilitation and physical therapists to implement your treatment plan. If you're scheduled for an inpatient stay, your collaboration with a physiatrist is crucial to your recovery. 

If you experience pain or physical limitations, or you're recovering from surgery, you can consult with a physiatrist at Rehab Select to begin your route to recovery. Contact the facility today to learn more about the services available to you. 

Facts About Inpatient Rehab Versus Outpatient Therapy

Topics: Inpatient Rehab