October 26th was National Physiatry Day, and we thought we’d take a moment to talk about this unique and important branch of medicine. Physical medicine, otherwise known as physiatry, is a medical approach that aims to improve the functional ability, and thus quality of life, of patients suffering from permanent physical impairments or disabilities.
It was born in the 1930s, when Frank H. Krusen, MD, began research into rehabilitation medicine after receiving treatment for his own tuberculosis. He founded the new Department of Physical Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in 1936.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the medical specialism now known as physical medicine took on new prominence, as injured soldiers returned home with a need for physical and mental rehabilitation. In the 1950s, the attention of physiatrists turned to the treatment of polio sufferers, as the polio epidemic continued on until the invention of the first polio vaccine in 1955.
What is Physical Medicine?
The goal of physical medicine and rehabilitation is to help patients to be as independent and happy as possible, and make substantial gains toward functional goals, within the framework of their physical limitations. Rather than seeking a “cure”, physiatrists guide patients toward optimal health in the wake of life-altering injuries or congenital disorders.
The key objectives of a physical medicine treatment program might include the management of pain, improving muscle strength, increasing joint mobility, improved lung capacity, better coordination, and finding new ways for patients to perform essential activities in their daily lives.
Treatments might include the use of exercise, heat therapy, hydrotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and psychotherapy, as well as training in the use of artificial limbs. More recently, physical medicine has also incorporated technology, including robotics, specialized mouth-operated wheelchairs, and other medical devices - even 3D-printed prosthetics.
Physical medicine considers the patient’s treatment from a unique and highly specialized perspective. In the words of Dr. Alvarez, MD (physiatrist and medical director at Metro Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, TX), “Physiatry is every specialty in a sense,” she explained. “It’s neuro, internal medicine, rehabilitation—in a new view; the view of a physiatrist.”
Typically, physiatrists help in cases of:
- Spinal cord injuries
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Severe muscle and joint injuries
- Chronic pain syndrome
- Non-healing wounds
- Pediatric congenital conditions
What Do Physiatrists Do?
A physiatrist will begin by conducting a thorough and in-depth medical history, to understand the patient’s medical issues within a broader holistic context. Valerie Jones, MD, of the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, calls physiatrists “clinical detectives,” whose thorough approach to diagnostics and whole-body approach to medicine enables them to catch the cause of medical issues.
The physiatrist will then design a treatment program that focuses on setting and achieving functional and occupational goals with the patient. The treatment will be delivered by a team of rehabilitation specialists, including physical and occupational therapists, nurses, and psychologists. Ameet Nagpal, MD, MS, MEd, FAAPMR, emphasizes that the purpose of physical medicine is not simply to manage pain: physiatrists aim to “move the needle”, enabling patients to achieve functional gains and a better quality of life.
How Can Physical Medicine Contribute to an Inpatient Rehab Program?
Physiatrists are experts in designing in-depth, whole-body, patient-centered rehabilitation programs. They have extensive training in working with teams to give patients coordinated and effective treatment.
Inpatient rehab treatments give physiatrists the opportunity to really get to know the patient and understand their issues. As Dr. Jones puts it, “One of the great advantages of inpatient rehabilitation is that physicians get to spend extra time observing their patients…over the course of that time, physiatrists have the opportunity to do a deep-dive into the patient’s health, home and work life, and physical goals.”
This thorough approach to rehab treatment not only helps the patient recover physically and mentally. The physical medicine approach to rehab also gives patients a thorough review of their overall health and quality of life, and helps create a rehab program that will to continue to increase physical function and boost quality of life long after patients leave the inpatient center.
Rehab Select offers physical medicine and rehabilitation programs in all of our inpatient facilities. To find out more about the treatment services we offer, please click here to contact us.