A Brief Intro to Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) Specialty for Medical Students

Henry Linford
Published on Sep 25, 2020. Updated on Sep 25, 2020.

This blog explores the medical specialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R), what exactly it is, and how to become a successful applicant for residency.

As I was shadowing a PM&R physician, he wisely pointed out how a single moment in time, such as a car accident or a stroke, can leave peoples’ lives drastically changed. Our goal as PM&R physicians is to evaluate what functions the patient has left, and then use those functions to help that patient achieve as much out of life as possible.

What exactly does a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician do?

A physician that specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation is commonly called a physiatrist. These are physicians that have completed a four-year, post medical graduate degree in this specific residency. They traditionally treat individuals that have suffered some sort of medical condition that has affected their central nervous system, including their brain and spinal cord, as well as their musculoskeletal system including joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons.

Illustration of a medical student examining an X-ray.

The main goal of treatment is to restore function to these individuals’ lives. Some tools that physiatrists have in order to better diagnose and treat patients include EMG and nerve conduction studies, nerve stimulators, injections of joints, and even osteopathic treatment.

How do I get involved with Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation?

For most schools, PM&R is considered an elective rotation, so many students won’t have much of a chance to do a rotation in this specialty until their fourth year of medical school. I don’t think you should wait until then to explore the specialty.

Many medical schools have a PM&R club you can join to learn more about the specialty and meet other people who are interested in it. There are also plentiful online resources, such as the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the nationwide organization of PM&R. You can even get involved with a leadership position in the field. Hands-on experience is invaluable, and you might have some luck by calling up a local physiatrist and merely asking to shadow them for a day, which is what I did.

How can I successfully match into PM&R?

I have talked to various medical students who have successfully matched into PM&R, and the overlying theme, besides achieving decent board scores, comes down to just showing genuine interest in the field. This includes getting a letter of recommendation from a PM&R doctor, getting involved with a PM&R club, doing research in the field, or doing audition rotations, especially in inpatient settings. It is hard to do all of this if you wait until your fourth year of medical school, so start early.

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation is a rewarding specialty that helps return key parts of patients’ lives that have been taken from them in those terrible moments. Consider this medical specialty as you go through your medical training—you might just find a love for it. 

About Henry

Henry Linford is a third year medical student at Campbell University SOM. His hobbies include spoken word poetry, gymnastics, and hammocking. He desires to go into Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Fun fact: Henry has climbed the steepest mountain range in the world, the Wellsville Mountains, more than four times.


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