What is a Physiatrist? - Asian woman with shoulder pain

What is a Physiatrist?

by Julie Hastings MD and Susan Sorosky MD

A ‘physiatrist ‘ (pronounced ‘fizz i’ a trist’) is a physician who specializes in Physiatry, also known as Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation or PM&R, one of the 24 medical specialties certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties. A physiatrist is a specialist who focuses on the diagnosis and non-surgical management of disorders affecting the spine and musculoskeletal system including the joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, discs and nerves. As “physicians of function,” physiatrists aim to not only relieve pain but also to restore function. 

The physicians at Desert Spine and Sport Physicians (DSSP) are all board-certified physiatrists who have completed a four year residency in PM&R after graduating from medical school (MD or DO). They are additionally fellowship trained in Interventional Spine and Musculoskeletal Medicine (ISSM). Many of our providers have also completed additional training in ultrasound-guidance for interventional procedures, regenerative medicine including platelet rich plasma (PRP) and prolotherapy, and the diagnosis and management of pelvic floor disorders. DSSP is also committed to the training of new physiatrists, and since 2011 has had a year-long fellowship in ISSM which is now accredited by the North American Spine Society.

The physiatrists at DSSP treat a wide range of problems affecting the spine and musculoskeletal system including, but not limited to:

  • Back and Neck Pain
  • Radiculopathy/Sciatica
  • Herniated Discs
  • Spinal Stenosis
  • Vertebral Compression Fractures 
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Tendonitis/Bursitis
  • Sports Injuries
  • Musculoskeletal Pain
  • Pelvic Floor Dysfunction


Physiatrists are trained to look at the big picture and treat the whole person and not just the problem area. Diagnosis heavily relies on a detailed medical history as well as a comprehensive physical examination focusing on the biomechanical relationships between different parts of the body. This approach is integral to being able to pinpoint the cause of a challenging pain condition. Physiatrists are also trained in the interpretation of imaging studies such as X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans and the performance of electrodiagnostic testing (nerve conduction studies and EMG) which is used to help diagnose certain nerve and muscle disorders. Once a correct pain generator is identified, a specific treatment plan can then be developed.

Patient Education:

Patient education is one of the integral components of a physiatrist’s comprehensive management. The team approach is central to PM&R, and the patient is most definitely part of that team. The physicians at DSSP take the necessary time with each patient to review diagnostic images, explain the diagnosis and treatment options, and answer any questions and concerns. They also provide their patients with educational literature from the monthly blog on the most up to date research on various conditions and treatment options. Topics on the blog range from the latest research on platelet rich therapy and stem cells, to the effects of obesity and sleep on pain, to the current CDC guidelines for exercise, to the evidence for yoga in the management of back and neck pain, and more.


Physiatrists offer patients a comprehensive and multi-faceted treatment plan that addresses not only the symptom but also the “why” behind each patient’s unique presentation. Through monthly multi-disciplinary journal clubs and practice-wide didactics, the physicians at DSSP also make every effort to stay on the cutting edge of research and education. As their understanding of pain in the spine and musculoskeletal system grows so do the treatment options they provide to their patients.

Treatments options include, but are not limited to:

The medical practitioners and staff at DSSP are dedicated to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of spine, sports, and musculoskeletal pain and injury. Our goal for each patient is to help relieve pain and maximize function. We are dedicated to helping patients stay as active as possible at any age with comprehensive, compassionate, and innovative medical care. We are honored to have been recognized as “Top Docs” by Phoenix Magazine for 13 consecutive years, and we aspire to keep delivering care that is worthy of this recognition. We look forward to working with you and your patients at Desert Spine and Sports Physicians.