Movement Wellness

What in the World is Physiatry? (pronounced fĭ-zī’ə-trē or fizz-EYE-a-tree)

Oddly enough, in this era of branding and name recognition, my medical specialty, physiatry, has almost none. In fact, people often think physiatry is just psychiatry spelled wrong. If you thought the same thing, it’s okay. I’m here to set the record straight and show you how physiatry can be practically applied to all of our lives.

The word “physiatry” comes from the Greek word “physikos” or “physis” meaning physical or natural and “iatreia” meaning the art of healing. Dr. Frank Krusen of the Mayo Clinic created the term “physiatry” in 1938 to identify a new type of physician specializing in physical medicine, which refers to treating patients with physical agents and not relying on medicines alone. Physical modalities have been used to treat illness and injury since ancient times and include heat, cold, water, massage, light, exercise and electrical current. Dr. Krusen’s interest in formalizing the use of physical means to aid healing was inspired by his own struggle with tuberculosis.

However, it was not until 1946 that the American Medical Association (AMA) officially sponsored the term. One year later, physiatry was formally recognized as a medical specialty. Today, these physicians may also be referred to as physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) doctors. Army Air Corp physician, Dr. Howard Rusk introduced the rehabilitation aspect to this evolving field. His research demonstrated that active rehabilitation was far superior to the bed rest and passive recovery previously offered to injured soldiers during WWII.

My experience in this field has taught me that active prevention and rehabilitation can be easily incorporated into your own life.


What makes physiatry unique?

Unlike most other medical specialties, physiatrists do not focus on one body organ system, instead physiatrists are experts in the function of nerves, muscles, bones and the brain. The incorporation of psychosocial factors in their care plans requires the physiatrist to understand the family and community life of the patient. Because your body’s function relies on many moving parts, it makes sense to consider each of these parts and how they work together toward overall health, right?

Physiatrists work in partnership with their patients to restore optimal function after injury or illness and treat a diverse range of problems, such as back pain, stroke and spinal cord injury. They treat people from all age groups by giving them a detailed diagnosis and offering nonsurgical comprehensive treatment. The goal is returning an individual back to their home and job with the highest level of function possible.

Due to this core principle of optimizing function, I like to think of us physiatrists as functioneers.


What does this mean for me?

Currently, physiatry is poised to aid America’s rapidly expanding aging population by optimizing their function and quality of life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population 65 years and over is projected to be 83.7 million in 2020. This is almost double the population in 2012 (43.1 million). The aging “baby boomers” began turning 65 in 2011. My hospital colleagues and I often say that, “70 is the new 50” because older adults are now maintaining optimal function longer than ever.

This is not to say that everyone can’t benefit from what physiatry has to teach us. You can! When your desire to stay active is challenged by accidents, aging, genetics, or just a desire to maintain whole body health and function, a physiatrist and an expert team of therapists can provide you information to increase your health and longevity now.

Now that you know what a physiatrist is and the ways that this specialty can be a helpful part of your personal wellness team, I hope you will join many thousands of others in incorporating whole body care into your active and well-balanced life!



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