How to Become a Physiatrist

Updated on January 15, 2024


Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a physiatrist? A physiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. They help patients with disabilities or injuries regain their mobility and independence. If you want to pursue this rewarding career path, you’ll need to complete several years of training. First, you must earn a bachelor’s degree, typically focusing your undergraduate studies on pre-med requirements. Next, you’ll complete four years of medical school and obtain your MD degree. After that, you must finish a residency program in physical medicine and rehabilitation, which takes four additional years. Finally, you can become board-certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation by passing exams from the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. You can attain this meaningful role of helping patients rebuild their abilities with hard work and dedication.

What is a Physiatrist?

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

Overview of a Physiatrist’s Role

Physiatrists take a whole-person approach to treatment, evaluating how an injury, disease, or disability impacts a patient physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. They coordinate care amongst various specialists and health professionals to develop a customized rehabilitation plan for each patient.

Some of the main responsibilities of a physiatrist include:

– Diagnosing medical conditions causing disability and impairment
– Prescribing medication, braces, assistive devices and other interventions
– Performing electrodiagnostic testing to evaluate nerve and muscle function
– Using targeted injection therapies to treat pain and improve mobility
– Leading a multi-disciplinary rehab team including physical, occupational and speech therapists
– Educating patients and families on realistic outcomes and self-care strategies

For more details on the physiatry specialty, check out the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation’s overview of a physiatrist’s role.

After finishing four years of medical school, aspiring physiatrists complete a four-year PM&R residency program to gain specialized clinical experience. Many also pursue one or two years of additional subspecialty fellowship training in areas like brain injury, spinal cord injury, neuromuscular medicine, pain management, cancer rehabilitation, and pediatric rehabilitation.

So in essence, a physiatrist physician is a rehabilitation expert who leads a patient’s recovery process to maximize functional independence after illness, injury or disability. Their medical training allows them to treat the whole patient from all angles.

What do a psychiatrist do?

Physiatrists, also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians, treat various 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, physiatrists:

Educational Requirements

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step toward becoming a physiatrist is earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Some common majors for aspiring physiatrists include biology, chemistry, physics, pre-med, or health sciences. However, any major is acceptable if you complete the necessary prerequisite courses for medical school. These usually include biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, math, and English.

Complete Medical School

After earning a bachelor’s degree, the next educational requirement is to complete 4 years of medical school and earn either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Acceptance into medical school is very competitive, requiring a high GPA, good scores on the MCAT exam, and relevant experience. The first two years focus on classroom instruction, while the final two years involve clinical experience through clerkships and rotations.

Finish a Residency

After medical school, aspiring physiatrists must complete a residency program in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, typically lasting four years. This program involves assessing patients, developing treatment plans, and providing care under experienced mentors, allowing residents to gain specialized skills in treating disabilities or chronic conditions.

Obtain Licensure

The final step is to become licensed, requiring passing exams through the appropriate medical board, such as the USMLE Steps 1-3 or the COMLEX USA Levels 1-3. Once licensed, physiatrists can start practicing in their specialty. Some also become board-certified through the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Postgraduate Training for Physiatrists

Becoming a licensed physiatrist requires significant postgraduate training and education. Here are the key steps:

Overall, the journey includes at least 8-10 years of postgraduate training, including medical school, residency, board certification, and optional specialty fellowships. This extensive training prepares physiatrists to significantly impact patients’ health, mobility, independence, and quality of life.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Physiatrist

Becoming a successful physiatrist requires developing a specific skillset and embodying certain personal qualities that are well-suited to the field.


A physiatrist must have strong diagnostic skills to accurately evaluate a patient’s condition, determine the root cause, and develop an appropriate treatment plan. As noted by the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPM&R), physiatrists rely on the “art and science of medicine” to make diagnoses through detailed patient interviews, physical exams, and review of tests and imaging.

In addition to diagnosis, physiatrists need competence in a range of therapeutic interventions including prescription of medication, physical therapy, rehabilitation approaches, and performing certain procedures like joint injections or ultrasound-guided therapies. Having the manual dexterity and steadiness to accurately guide needles and manipulate joints takes regular practice and skill.

Physiatrists also require strong communication abilities to clearly explain diagnoses and treatment plans to patients and collaborate with other members of a rehabilitation care team. The ability to connect with patients, earn trust, motivate them through recovery, and provide compassion are fundamental.


Some key qualities that allow physiatrists to thrive in their caring role include:

The right blend of medical knowledge, technical skills, and personal qualities can equip physiatrists to make a positive difference in the lives of those recovering from injury, illness, or disability. Taking a thoughtful approach to fostering these assets prepares medical students to succeed in this meaningful specialty.

Physiatrist Salary

Years of Experience Average Salary
<5 years $225,000
5-9 years $249,000
10-19 years $303,000
20+ years $356,000

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Physiotherapists have a wide range of career opportunities across diverse settings. Some of the most common work environments include hospitals, rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, schools, home health agencies, corporate wellness centers, and private practices.

As physiotherapists gain more experience and expertise, they can take on more advanced leadership roles. Some career advancement opportunities include:

The career prospects for growth and specialization make physiotherapy an appealing long-term career choice. With further education and ability to handle complex caseloads, physiotherapists can advance professionally and expand their earning potential.


In summary, becoming a physiatrist requires significant education and training, but it can be a rewarding career helping patients recover from injuries or illnesses. After completing a bachelor’s degree and medical school, aspiring physiatrists must complete a 4-year residency program in the specialty. They may also complete a fellowship for further subspecialty training. Throughout their career, physiatrists must stay current on the latest advancements and treatments through continuing education. With the aging population and increased survival rates from traumatic injuries, the demand for physiatrists is expected to grow in the coming years. For those willing to commit to over a decade of higher education and training, a career in physiatry promises opportunities to restore mobility and improve the quality of life for various patients.

Additional Resources

Resource Link Description
American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Professional association representing physiatrists
  • Information on training pathways, fellowships, and certification
  • Job board for physiatry positions
Association of Academic Physiatrists
  • Organization for academic physiatrists
  • Research funding and mentoring opportunities
  • Annual meeting to present research
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Residency Programs
  • AMA database of accredited PM&R residency programs
  • Details on each program’s curriculum, application process, salary
PM&R Residency Program Directors Organization
  • Forum for communication between residency directors
  • Tips for applying to residency programs
  • Residency program ratings and reviews


How much does a physiatrist make?
The average salary for a physiatrist in the United States is around $241,000 annually, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics salary data. However, salaries can vary widely depending on your years of experience, location, and type of practice. Many physiatrists earn six-figure salaries once established in their careers.

What degree do you need to become a physiatrist?
Becoming a licensed physiatrist requires extensive education and training. After completing a bachelor’s degree, you must attend four years of medical school to earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Following medical school, you must complete a residency program in physical medicine and rehabilitation, which lasts four years. After finishing their residency, many physiatrists pursue additional subspecialty fellowship training ranging from one to two years.

How much experience do you need to be a physiatrist?
Between medical school, residency, and potential fellowship training, it takes approximately 11-13 years of education and clinical training after college to become licensed as a practicing physiatrist in the U.S. Residency and fellowship training provide aspiring physiatrists with supervised clinical experience in the field. Physiatrists focus on non-surgical rehabilitation and gain experience treating various conditions affecting the brain, spinal cord, nerves, bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons throughout their extensive medical training.

What does a physiatrist do daily?
A physiatrist has a variety of responsibilities daily. They see patients and develop comprehensive treatment plans, including customized exercise programs, prescription medications, and physical modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation, braces, casts, or injections. Physiatrists lead a rehabilitation team that may include nurses, therapists, psychologists, and social workers. They document detailed patient notes, review diagnostic tests, communicate with other health providers, and perform procedures like joint injections, nerve blocks, and trigger point injections when appropriate.