Five things to know about physiatrists

March 13, 2018

A photo of a woman talking to a doctor

It’s no surprise to Dr. Alexis Tracy when someone is confused about what she does.

Tracy is a physician in Steamboat Springs with specialty training in physical medicine and rehabilitation, also known as physiatry.

“People often think I’m a psychiatrist or a physical therapist,” Tracy said. “Some medical doctors even struggle to understand the field.”

But it’s worth knowing when a physiatrist can help: their aid can benefit people who are facing a range of physical challenges. Below, Tracy outlines five things to know about physiatrists.

1) They’re goal-oriented.

At their core, physiatrists are specialized physicians who help people overcome barriers to reaching their physical goals, whether that’s to win a ski race or return to gardening.

“Our work is about helping improve quality of life for people who are suffering from a major disability, chronic pain or even a minor issue,” Tracy said. “We help people identify the physical goals they want to reach, then assist them any way we can to reach those goals.”

2) They work with a variety of patients.

Patients of any age and with a range of challenges may benefit from working with a physiatrist. That includes the child in a wheelchair who’s navigating school field trips, the elderly patient suffering from chronic neck pain and the elite athlete dealing with a sprained ankle.

“There doesn’t have to be a certain diagnosis,” Tracy said. “If patients have pain and it’s limiting them, we’ll see them.”

3) They look at the whole body.

When Tracy meets with a patient, she’ll conduct a detailed physical exam, carefully review MRIs and other images, and work to understand issues from a big-picture standpoint. Then, she’ll help a patient understand what issues might be causing pain or limiting mobility and what can be done to help.

“Most people want an accurate diagnose and they want to know why something is happening. Then they want to understand their options,” Tracy said. “Even though you haven’t changed their diagnosis, they often feel more empowered by knowing the pros and cons of different options and knowing they have a doctor who will support them.”

Most physiatrists also look at nerve health through electrodiagnostic testing. And when it comes to treatments, physiatrists may do nerve blocks, epidural steroid injections, manual therapies and more.

4) They work with a team.

It’s not uncommon for a physiatrist to collaborate with a team of physicians, therapists, surgeons and other health care professionals.

Through that collaboration, they can often find good options for patients who are trying to avoid surgery or who aren’t candidates for surgery.

“We can help create a bridge for patients until their body can heal, or until they figure out how to manage their pain or disability in an effective way,” Tracy said.

5) They’re cheerleaders.

Physiatrists are encouraging, supportive voices in a patient’s journey, and they don’t focus solely on the physical.

“We help patients understand the physical, mental and spiritual barriers to their physical goals,” Tracy said.

And physiatrists also aim to help patients meet a goal, and then continue on with their lives.

“My goal is for a patient to not need me,” Tracy said. “Chronic conditions may flare up and require periodic check-ins, but I believe most disorders can be overcome through empowerment of the patient. Once patients figure out how to manage and cope with their issue, they won’t need to come any more.”

If you’re struggling with a chronic condition or dealing with a recent injury, consider seeing a physiatrist: you just may find a solution to healing from or managing your ailment.

 This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Jan. 14, 2018.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at