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Physiatrist vs. Rheumatologist: What Are the Differences?

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

If you’re interested in a career in medicine, there are many different specialties you can choose from. Two such specialties are physiatry and rheumatology. Though both involve diagnosing and treating patients, there are several key differences between these two fields. In this article, we discuss the similarities and differences between physiatry and rheumatology, and we provide information on what you can expect from each profession.

What is a Physiatrist?

Physiatrists, also called Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) physicians, treat a wide variety of conditions that affect the brain, spinal cord, nerves, bones, joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons. They use a variety of modalities to help patients regain function and improve their quality of life. Physiatrists conduct comprehensive evaluations to develop a diagnosis and individualized treatment plan. They use a combination of therapeutic interventions, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, psychological support and medications. They also provide guidance on adaptive equipment, home modifications and community resources.

What is a Rheumatologist?

Rheumatologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of rheumatic diseases, which are diseases of the joints, muscles and bones. These diseases can be caused by a wide variety of conditions, including autoimmune diseases, infections, and metabolic problems. Rheumatologists often work closely with other specialists, such as orthopedists, to provide comprehensive care for their patients. They use a variety of diagnostic tools, including X-rays, MRIs, and blood tests, to determine the cause of a patient’s symptoms. Rheumatologists also treat their patients with medication, physical therapy, and, in some cases, surgery.

Physiatrist vs. Rheumatologist

Here are the main differences between a physiatrist and a rheumatologist.

Job Duties

Both physiatrists and rheumatologists work with patients to develop personalized treatment plans that address the root causes of their pain, inflammation and other symptoms. They may perform diagnostic tests such as MRIs or X-rays to identify underlying conditions. Physiatrists focus primarily on rehabilitation, so they use the results of these tests to design exercise programs, recommend assistive devices such as wheelchairs and prescribe medication to treat associated symptoms.

Rheumatologists specialize in treating autoimmune disorders, so they typically prescribe medications to suppress immune system responses. These drugs can help patients manage symptoms more effectively, but a rheumatologist is unlikely to prescribe them unless other treatments have failed.

Job Requirements

Physiatrists and rheumatologists must both complete a four-year undergraduate degree before attending medical school. During medical school, they will complete a three-year residency program in their chosen field. After completing their residency, physiatrists and rheumatologists can take board exams to become certified in their specialty. Some physiatrists and rheumatologists also choose to complete fellowships to receive additional training in a specific area of interest.

Work Environment

Both physiatrists and rheumatologists work in hospitals, outpatient clinics and private practices. They may also work for the government or military. The type of environment they work in depends on their employer. For example, a physiatrist who works at a hospital may spend most of their time working with patients in an office setting. A physiatrist who works in a private practice may travel to meet with patients in their homes or other locations.

Rheumatologists typically work in medical offices, but some may work in hospitals as well. Some rheumatologists may work in research settings, such as universities or pharmaceutical companies.


Both physiatrists and rheumatologists need to have excellent diagnostic skills. They both treat patients with conditions that cause pain, inflammation and other symptoms. To properly diagnose their patients, they need to be able to listen to their patients describe their symptoms, perform a physical examination and order and interpret tests, like X-rays, MRIs and blood tests.

Both physiatrists and rheumatologists also need to have strong communication skills. They need to be able to explain their diagnoses and treatment plans to their patients in a way that is easy for them to understand. They also need to be able to build relationships of trust with their patients so that their patients feel comfortable following their recommendations.

Physiatrists may use more hands-on techniques, like therapeutic exercises and manual therapy, to treat their patients. Rheumatologists often focus on treating their patients with medication. However, both physiatrists and rheumatologists need to be familiar with a variety of treatment options so that they can tailor their care to each individual patient.


Physiatrists earn an average salary of $199,266 per year, while rheumatologists earn an average salary of $227,663 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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