Docs Answer: What is the Difference between Physical Therapy, PM&R and Sports Medicine?

Dear Doctors,

I majored in kinesthesiolopgy and I’m interested in pursuing a health career related to movement/athletics. I’m a little confused. What’s the difference between the PT, PM&R and sports medicine specialties?

– Kineso Guy

While PM&R docs, Sports Med docs and Physical Therapists all treat the same types of patients (pts with debilitating neuromusculoskeletal conditions) and work together as a team, there are key differences between them. Essentially though, all of these specialists work to restore the ability of people to function well physically and have a good quality of life. Here are some differences:


Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation (PM&R): Physicians. Completed 4 years of medical training and 4 years of residency.

Sports Medicine: Physicians. Completed 4 years of medical training, a residency program (there are more than one option, including Orthopedic Surgery residency or a primary care residency like Family Medicine, Internal Medicine or Pediatrics, minimum 3 years in length) and then a typically 1 year Fellowship in Sports Medicine

Physical Therapy (PT): A (mostly) master’s degree allied health field.

What They Do

Broadly speaking, PM&R and Sports Medicine docs diagnosis and prescribe therapist that PTs then perform.

PM&R are physicians are trained to diagnosis musculoskeletal conditions and prescribe therapeutic exercise and rehabilitation modalities.

Sports Medicine physicians also diagnosis musculoskeletal conditions and prescribe therapeutic exercise and rehabilitation modalities, but tend to work more with athletes and sports teams to heal athletic injuries.

Physical Therapists use the diagnosis and treatment parameters provided by the physician to apply treatment modalities like stretching, strengthening programs, ultrasound and others to heal the patient. Keep in mind, often times the treatment parameters outlined by docs are extremely loose/vague so often times PTs have a lot of freedom when it comes to coming up with the best way to help a patient through their condition.

I hope that helps!

– Dr. Brittani

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Dr. Brittani James

Brittani James, MD is an Attending Family Medicine Physician who practices on Chicago's South Side. She co-founded Med Like Me with her twin sister, Dr. Brandi, as a passion project. She is dedicated to working with underserved and vulnerable populations and mentoring the next generation of diverse physicians.

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