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Physiatrist vs. Orthopedist: What Are the Differences?

Learn about the two careers and review some of the similarities and differences between them.

When it comes to treating injuries and pain, you may be wondering whether to see a physiatrist or an orthopedist. Both of these medical professionals are trained to diagnose and treat conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system. However, there are several key differences between these two types of doctors. In this article, we explain what physiatrists and orthopedists are, compare and contrast their training and specialties, and provide tips on when to see each type of doctor.

What is a Physiatrist?

Physiatrists, also called Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) physicians, are medical doctors who diagnose and treat patients with physical impairments or disabilities. They work with patients to develop individualized treatment plans that may include physical therapy, pain management, exercises and other interventions. Physiatrists may also prescribe assistive devices, such as braces or wheelchairs. In addition to treating patients, Physiatrists may also serve as consultants to other medical professionals, such as surgeons. They may also conduct research to develop new treatments or interventions for physical impairments and disabilities.

What is an Orthopedist?

An Orthopedist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of injuries and diseases of the musculoskeletal system. This includes the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves. Orthopedists use a variety of diagnostic tools to assess a patient’s condition, such as X-rays, MRIs and CT scans. They may also order blood tests or other laboratory tests. Orthopedists treat their patients using a variety of methods, including medication, physical therapy, surgery or a combination of these methods.

Physiatrist vs. Orthopedist

Here are the main differences between a physiatrist and an orthopedist.

Job Duties

Both physiatrists and orthopedists work with patients to improve their physical abilities. They may perform surgeries or prescribe medications as part of this work. The primary difference between the two positions is that an orthopedist focuses on restoring a patient’s skeletal system, while a physiatrist addresses the patient’s neuromuscular system. This means that an orthopedist typically evaluates a patient’s bones, joints, ligaments and muscles. A physiatrist usually assesses a patient’s central nervous system, peripheral nerves, muscles, spinal cord and brain.

Another key difference is that an orthopedist often treats acute injuries, such as broken bones, while a physiatrist more frequently treats chronic conditions, such as back pain. This is because a physiatrist can treat conditions that affect a patient’s central nervous system, which controls important functions like movement and coordination.

Job Requirements

Physiatrists and orthopedists both need to complete a four-year undergraduate degree before attending medical school. During medical school, they will take classes on topics like human anatomy and physiology, as well as more specialized courses related to their chosen field. After medical school, physiatrists must complete a four-year residency program in physical medicine and rehabilitation, while orthopedists must complete a five-year residency program in orthopedic surgery. Finally, both physiatrists and orthopedists must obtain licensure from the state they plan to practice and pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination.

Work Environment

Both physiatrists and orthopedists work in hospitals, but they may also have private practices. Orthopedists often perform surgeries on patients to help them recover from injuries or illnesses that affect their bones, joints and muscles. They may travel to different locations to provide care for patients who need surgery. Physiatrists typically work in outpatient settings where they can monitor the progress of their patients over time.


Both physiatrists and orthopedists need to have excellent communication skills. They will often be working with patients who are dealing with pain or other physical issues that can be difficult to manage. As such, it is important that they are able to clearly explain treatment options, expectations and the potential risks and benefits of various procedures.

Both physiatrists and orthopedists also need to have strong problem-solving skills. They will often be presented with complex cases that require them to consider a variety of factors before making a diagnosis or recommending a course of treatment.

Physiatrists typically need to have a strong understanding of rehabilitation medicine. This includes knowledge of how to design and implement rehabilitation programs that can help patients regain function and improve their quality of life. Orthopedists, on the other hand, need to have a strong understanding of musculoskeletal anatomy and physiology. This enables them to effectively diagnose and treat conditions affecting the bones, joints, muscles and connective tissues.


Physiatrists can earn an average salary of $199,266 per year, while orthopedists can earn an average salary of $186,464 per year. Both of these salaries can vary depending on the location of the job, the level of experience and the type of employer.


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