Definition & Overview

As the term implies, rehabilitation medicine focuses on rehabilitating patients with physical disabilities caused by injuries or diseases. Also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation or physiatry, this branch of medicine is dedicated to helping patients reach their full potential despite their physical limitations.

A specialist who practices in this field is called a physiatrist, not to be confused with a psychiatrist, who focuses on mental health. However, in some cases, both medical professionals work closely together to achieve a common goal.

People with physical disabilities find it difficult to live a normal, productive life. It was with this concern that physiatry was established. Unlike the majority of other branches of medicine, physiatry’s primary objective is not to diagnose or treat certain conditions but to help patients overcome the limitations that their disabilities impose. As such, physiatrists are trained in the rehabilitation of a wide variety of conditions, such as spinal cord injuries and other conditions that result in a physical disability.

Who Should Undergo and Expected Results

Anybody of any age with a disability that affects their way of life and those who have incurable diseases that create functional problems are eligible for rehabilitation medicine.

Some of the most common conditions that require rehabilitation medicine include osteoporosis, chronic back pain, spinal cord injuries, osteoarthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and fibromyalgia. Physiatrists also provide treatment for sports-related injuries and musculoskeletal problems.

In terms of expectations, the results of treatment differ from patient to patient. Some respond better to treatment than others while some may need more time before any significant improvements to their condition can be noted. However, with continuous treatment and a significant amount of effort, a patient’s condition should improve immensely.

How Does the Procedure Work?

The exact treatment procedures differ based on the type of treatment and the condition being treated. However, prior to receiving any form of treatment, physiatrists typically perform a thorough physical examination and conduct imaging tests so they are able to formulate a targeted rehabilitation plan.

When diagnosing the patient’s condition, physiatrists rely on a number of diagnostic tools that focus on identifying nerve or muscle damage. These include electromyography (EMG), a tool that evaluates the electrical activity produced by different muscles, and nerve conduction studies (NCS), which evaluate the condition of the nerves while in a relaxed or stimulated situation.

In addition to the above procedures, a physiatrist may also opt to use other tools, such as ultrasound, nerve stimulators, muscle and nerve biopsy and prosthetics, among many others.

Possible Risks and Complications

Although rehabilitation medicine programs are based on the patient’s condition and exact need, they still carry some degree of risk and possible complications.

For instance, patients who attempt to perform certain exercises or movements in order to build muscles and regain some functions are at risk of injuries. Also, it is common for patients with incurable diseases to develop complications, which is why physiatrists work closely with the attending physician so that any complications can be prevented or managed in a timely manner.

The majority of treatment methods used in rehabilitation medicine are non-surgical. As much as possible, physiatrists use conservative treatment methods to lower the risks of complications. However, if non-surgical methods fail to improve a patient’s condition, surgery may be considered. If so, another set of risks and possibilities of complications will arise because of the surgical procedure.

Risks and complications are not limited to the physical aspect of a patient’s condition. In fact, patients with disabilities have psychological problems that also need to be addressed during treatment. Many of them go through an emotional rollercoaster when undergoing rehabilitation. Therefore, the patient’s emotional state of mind is also closely monitored during treatment to prevent the patient from going into an emotional state that will reduce the effectiveness of the treatment.


  • American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Share This Information: