How to Become a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician

Updated on January 15, 2024


Becoming a physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physician, also known as a physiatrist, requires many years of education and training. After obtaining an undergraduate degree, you must complete four years of medical school to earn your MD or DO degree, as the Association of American Medical Colleges outlines. Subsequently, you must complete a residency program in PM&R accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Notably, PM&R residencies last four years. After finishing your residency training, you may pursue further subspecialty fellowship training in areas like brain injury medicine, neuromuscular medicine, pain management, pediatric rehabilitation, or spinal cord injury medicine. The journey to becoming a practicing PM&R physician requires dedication and many years of intensive education and clinical training.

What is an Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician?

A physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physician, also known as a physiatrist, is a medical doctor who specializes in restoring optimal function to people with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities. PM&R physicians aim to reduce pain and enhance the quality of life for their patients through comprehensive rehabilitation care.

PM&R physicians complete medical school and then a residency program in the specialty, providing intensive training in the diagnosis, evaluation, and interdisciplinary management of patients with musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and integumentary systems impairments. Their expertise spans a wide range of conditions, including spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, amputations, and chronic pain.

The physiatrist leads a rehabilitation team including physical, occupational, speech, recreational, and vocational therapists, rehabilitation nurses, psychologists or neuropsychologists, and social workers. They develop a coordinated treatment plan tailored to each patient’s unique needs and goals. The physiatrist oversees patient care throughout rehabilitation, from acute hospitalization to community reintegration. Their expertise in rehabilitation techniques, adaptive equipment, orthotics, and medications facilitates optimal recovery and function.

What do Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physicians do?

PM&R physicians, also known as physiatrists, treat a wide variety of medical conditions affecting the brain, spinal cord, nerves, bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons. They aim to restore optimal function, improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities.

Specifically, PM&R physicians:

Educational Requirements for Becoming a

To become a physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physician, you must complete several years of education and training. The basic steps are:

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step is typically earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college or university. Common majors for aspiring PM&R physicians include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or another science-related field, but any major is generally acceptable as long as you complete all your medical school prerequisites. Make sure to maintain a high-grade point average.

Attend Medical School

After college, you must earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO)degree. This involves an additional four years of education at an accredited medical school. Courses cover topics like anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, medical ethics, and clinical rotations. You will also need to pass the medical licensing exam.

Complete a PM&R Residency

After medical school, PM&R physicians complete a 3-4 year PM&R residency program. Here, they gain supervised clinical training in the specialty, including rehabilitation techniques, pain management, and more. Residencies allow doctors to become board-certified.

The educational path takes at least 11-12 years after high school. It’s also important to earn state medical licensure and become board-certified in PM&R. Maintaining excellent grades, high MCAT scores, and strong letters of recommendation can help get accepted to the required medical programs.

Postgraduate Training for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician

Becoming a PM&R physician requires significant postgraduate training:

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician

A good PM&R physician requires a unique blend of medical knowledge, interpersonal abilities, and technical skills.

Medical Knowledge

A solid foundation in medicine is essential. PM&R physicians must complete medical school and a residency in the specialty, where they gain in-depth knowledge of areas like anatomy, physiology,  pharmacology, and disease management. They need to diagnose medical conditions correctly and understand how to develop customized treatment plans. Ongoing medical education and training are also essential to stay updated on the latest advancements.

Interpersonal Skills

PM&R physicians work closely with patients during recovery and rehabilitation, so compassion and emotional intelligence are vital. They must listen attentively to understand patient needs and limitations fully. Additionally, they collaborate with other healthcare specialists like therapists and social workers regularly. So, the ability to work well on an interdisciplinary team is crucial.

Technical Abilities

PM&R physicians rely on specialized techniques to aid diagnosis and treatment. For example, they must master procedures like nerve conduction studies, electromyography, joint injections, and botulinum toxin injections. Manual dexterity and technical aptitude help physicians perform these interventions successfully and minimize patient discomfort.

In the competitive field of PM&R, truly exceptional physicians blend top-notch clinical knowledge with unwavering compassion and masterful technical skills. The most successful understand both the science behind health conditions and the deeply personal nature of rehabilitation. With insight, patience, and competence, they make a remarkable difference in restoring mobility and improving patients’ quality of life.

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Physician Salary

Experience Level Average Salary
Less than three years $200,000
3-7 years $225,000
8-14 years $275,000
15-21 years $300,000
More than 21 years $350,000

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) physicians have many career opportunities open to them. After completing medical school and a PM&R residency program, physicians can choose to work in a variety of settings.

Many PM&R physicians work in hospitals, leading rehabilitation programs and teams. They work closely with patients who are recovering from disabilities or injuries to help restore mobility and function. Hospital-based PM&R physicians may choose to subspecialize in areas like spinal cord injury, brain injury, or pediatric rehabilitation.

Additionally, PM&R physicians have opportunities to open private outpatient clinics. These clinics treat musculoskeletal injuries, pain management, and sports medicine. PM&R physicians in private practice often work closely with physical therapists, athletic trainers, and others. They may provide services like electrodiagnostic, interventional injections, or adaptive equipment prescriptions.

Academic medicine is another potential career path for PM&R physicians. Those who work in academic settings often combine clinical practice with research and medical education roles. They may research new rehabilitation approaches or teach medical students interested in the specialty. For example, check out this research program at the University of Michigan.

As PM&R physicians gain more experience, they may also move into leadership roles managing rehab departments, opening their private practices, serving as medical directors, or taking on other administrative positions. Board certification and subspecialty fellowship training can further enhance career advancement opportunities. Overall, PM&R physicians have very flexible career options and great potential for professional growth.


In summary, becoming a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician requires extensive education and training, but it can be a rewarding career helping patients regain mobility and manage chronic pain. It typically starts with a bachelor’s degree, then four years of medical school to earn an MD or DO degree. A residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation follows this, which takes four years to complete. Candidates must then pass written and oral board certification exams through the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (ABPMR). Overall, pursuing this career path demands commitment, compassion, and specialized medical knowledge but allows one to significantly improve patient’s quality of life after illness or injury.

Additional Resources

Resource Link Description
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Professional association representing over 8,000 physical medicine and rehabilitation physician
  • Information on training pathways, fellowships, certification, practice management, and latest research
Association of Academic Physiatrists
  • Association dedicated to physiatry education, research, and academic development
  • Annual meetings, awards, grants, leadership programs, and educational resources
American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Administers certification exams for physiatry specialization and subspecialties
  • Overview of certification process, requirements, fees, and maintenance
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Residency Programs
  • AMA’s database of graduate medical education programs
  • Searchable directory of accredited PM&R residency and fellowship programs
  • Details on each program’s curriculum, application process, contacts


What is a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) Physician?
A PM&R physician, also known as a physiatrist, is a medical doctor who specializes in restoring optimal function to people with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities. They coordinate care amongst various healthcare professionals to maximize patients’ quality of life.

What Degree Do You Need to Become a PM&R Physician?
Becoming a PM&R physician requires:

What Type of Licensing is Required?
After completing medical school and residency training, PM&R physicians must obtain state medical licensure by passing national exams and meeting other requirements. They may also become board-certified by a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialties, such as the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

What is the Average Salary for a PM&R Physician?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a PM&R physician is $208,000 per year or higher for those with considerable experience. Those working in academic institutions or large hospitals tend to fall on the higher end of PM&R physician salaries.

What Does the Work Environment Look Like?
PM&R physicians work in various settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, university medical centers, outpatient clinics, and private practices. They coordinate a team of physical therapists, occupational therapists, and other specialists to create comprehensive treatment plans for patients recovering from issues such as spinal cord injuries, strokes, traumatic brain injury, sports injuries, and other disabling conditions.