People who’ve sustained trauma to the musculoskeletal system (bones, muscles or joints) or suffer from chronic musculoskeletal conditions are often referred to specialized physicians to help them with their injury. Among these medical professionals are physiatrists and orthopedists who are both trained to help patients with musculoskeletal injuries.
These two physicians, along with physical therapists and chiropractors, are who people most often see when their bones, muscles or joints need treatment.
The key difference between physiatrists and orthopedists is that the latter can perform surgery, while the former cannot. Patients with musculoskeletal problems typically start off by trying non-invasive treatments prescribed by a physiatrist, but if those don’t provide enough relief, they may be referred to an orthopedist who will determine if the qualify for surgery.
What Is a Physiatrist?
Physiatrists are trained medical doctors who treat patients with injuries and disabilities affecting musculoskeletal functions. These specialized physicians rely on physical therapy and pain treatments to alleviate or eliminate pain, avoid surgery and improve mobility and the overall quality of life of their patients.
Once the patient has been diagnosed, a physiatrist will develop a detailed plan tailored to the patient’s unique needs and challenges. It’s not uncommon for physiatrists to work alongside other medical specialists, like primary care physicians, orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors, physical therapists or neurologists to provide comprehensive treatment.
What Conditions Can a Physiatrist Treat?
Physiatrists are qualified to diagnose and treat a wide variety of conditions, including:
- Spinal cord injuries
- Sports-related injuries
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Herniated disc
- Brain trauma
- Carpal tunnel
- Limb amputation
How Do Physiatrists Diagnose and Treat Patients?
Physiatrists commonly rely on techniques like medical history, physical examination and X-rays to diagnose their patients. They may also use electrodiagnostic medicine, which measures the electrical activity of muscles and nerves to determine if there’s nerve damages, such as in cases of back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Once a physiatrist makes a diagnosis, they may prescribe one or more of the following treatments:
- Spine injections
- Joint injections
- Soft tissue injections
- Physical therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Pain medications
- Orthotics (custom-made devices worn inside the shoes)
What Is an Orthopedist?
Orthopedists, also known as orthopedic surgeons, also specialize in the musculoskeletal system and treat patients with a variety of conditions affecting bones, joints, ligaments and muscles.
Due to the vastness of their specialty, many orthopedists choose to focus on a particular sub-specialty. For example, hand specialists will only see patients with hand and wrist conditions, while foot and ankle specialists will treat problems with the feet and/or ankles.
What Conditions Can an Orthopedist Treat?
Orthopedists treat serious injuries that haven’t responded to milder forms of treatment. It’s not uncommon for orthopedists to treat patients with severely broken bones that won’t heal with a cast, torn tendons, ruptured ligaments and spine or hip fractures from osteoporosis.
Orthopedists also treat patients with bone, ligament and tendon problems resulting from serious long-term illnesses like arthritis, chronic muscle and joint pain, cancerous tumors and blood cancers that can cause severe damage to the bones.
How Do Orthopedists Diagnose and Treat Patients?
An orthopedist will typically follow a similar route to that of a physiatrist. They’ll want to learn about the patient’s medical history, including symptoms and past treatments. They may ask for records of previous diagnostic tests.
To diagnose you, an orthopedists may perform X-rays, MRIs and ask you detailed questions about your injuries, pain or lifestyle.
Orthopedists can treat a patients’ problems with a variety of methods, including:
- Non-invasive treatments: Physical therapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture and prescribed medications
- Surgical solutions: Joint replacement, soft tissue repair, joint fusion, arthroscopy and osteotomy
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