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Rehabilitation Nurse Career Overview

Maura Deering, J.D.
Updated August 29, 2022
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    Rehabilitation nurses enjoy rewarding careers helping patients with chronic illnesses and disabilities regain their lives.
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    average earning potential$68,620SOURCE: PayScale

    What Does a Rehabilitation Nurse Do?

    ADN or BSN required
    certification optional

    Rehabilitation nurses help patients with chronic illness and disabling injuries regain their independence. They collaborate with other healthcare professionals, including physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, and speech therapists, regarding patient care.

    Primary responsibilities include the following:

    Primary Responsibilities

    • Direct patient care
    • Develop and implement learning resources and discharge plans
    • Coordinate nursing care in collaboration with team members
    • Serve as a resource and leader for nursing and healthcare staff
    • Facilitate community education about people with disabilities
    • Advocate at the legislative level

    Key Skills

    • Client advocacy
    • Collaboration
    • Leadership
    • Research
    • Teaching skills

    Andersen Ross Photography Inc / DigitalVision / Getty Images

    Where Do Rehabilitation Nurses Work?

    Rehabilitation nurses work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation centers, community and home healthcare, and long-term care facilities. Listed below are the typical duties rehab nurses perform in some of these workplaces.


    Nurses provide rehabilitation care and services, manage personnel and resources, and support research activity.

    Rehabilitation Centers

    Nurses educate patients and family, direct patient care, collaborate with clients, families, and the rehab team, and advocate for clients.

    Community and Home Health Facilities

    Nurses assess patients, create and implement goals and care plans, and work with the healthcare team.

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    Why Become a Rehab Nurse?

    Like all nursing careers, rehabilitation nursing offers rewards and challenges. The chart below outlines some of the pros and cons within the profession.

    Advantages to Becoming a Rehab Nurse

    • check-circlenurse practitionersOpportunities to collaborate and work on teams of healthcare specialists, including occupational and physical therapists, social workers, primary physicians, mental health professionals, and
    • check-circleVariety of workplace settings, including home healthcare, hospitals, long-term care facilities, rehabilitation centers, and community clinics
    • check-circleHelping patients to adapt to their illnesses and disabilities and regain their strength and independence
    • check-circlespecializationsPotential career growth into advanced rehab nurse roles and , such as gerontology, pediatrics, and pain management

    Disadvantages to Becoming a Rehab Nurse

    • x-circlePhysically demanding work that can include heavy lifting and helping patients with mobility
    • x-circleSlower pace compared to other types of nursing, assisting patients who recover gradually and may experience smaller gains
    • x-circlePotentially stressful work when caring for newly diagnosed patients who may be upset, angry, or depressed, along with anxious family members
    • x-circleCareer opportunities in advanced nursing and in some specializations may require 2-3 years of additional education and training

    How to Become a Rehabilitation Nurse

    Earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

    Rehabilitation nurses need a two-year ADN at minimum, with many employers preferring a four-year BSN. Both degrees qualify graduates to apply for registered nurse (RN) licensure.

    Pass the NCLEX-RN to receive RN licensure.

    Nursing program graduates take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and must earn a passing score to become eligible for their RN license.

    Complete required nursing experience.

    Licensed RNs who want to obtain certification must log two years working as professional rehabilitation nurses. Graduate nursing programs also often require a year or two of work experience.

    Consider pursuing a Rehabilitation Nurse Certification to become a certified rehabilitation registered nurse (CRRN).

    CRRN certification requires passing an exam and can open doors to more employment opportunities and higher salaries. Also, employers may require or prefer certified applicants.

    Consider becoming an advanced practice registered rehabilitation nurse by earning a master of science in nursing (MSN).

    Rehabilitation nurses who spend 2-3 years earning their MSN degree become leaders in clinical practice, education, and research. Their higher level of expertise typically results in positions directing and managing rehabilitative care.

    Rehabilitation Nursing: Advanced Practice vs. RN Roles

    Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who specialize in rehabilitation and RN rehabilitation nurses share some overlapping duties, but APRN-level practitioners take on more supervisory, management, and research roles and responsibilities.

    APRN Rehabilitation Nurse

    • Consultant: Finds and coordinates cases, liaises with third-party payers and other healthcare professionals, and advocates for clients
    • Direct Care Provider: Manages patients, serves as a clinical expert, acts as a crisis intervention resource, collaborates with interdisciplinary teams, and implements cost-effective technologies
    • Manager: Hires, trains, and evaluates staff, formulates policies and procedures, collects and evaluates program data, and monitors and ensures safe and high-quality services
    • Researcher: Guides development of research-based nursing, conducts, shares, or contributes to research, and directs data evaluation

    RN Rehabilitation Nurse

    • Caregiver: Assesses clients, develops and implements adaptable care plans, and evaluates and modifies care plans to achieve goals and objectives
    • Client Advocate: Listens to and guides clients and families, advocates at the policy level, helps clients achieve success when they return to work or school
    • Collaborator: Develops goals for clients, families, and rehabilitation teams, participates in conferences and meetings, and works with rehab team members
    • Teacher: Educates nurses, clients, and families about diseases and disabilities

    How Much Do Rehabilitation Nurses Make?

    According to Payscale, the average RN-level rehabilitation nurse salary totals $68,620 per year. Certification leads to increases in both salary and job opportunities, with the average CRRN making $85,340 annually — earnings that exceed the average pay for all RNs.

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 7% increase in RN jobs from 2019-2029. By contrast, the projected change in employment for all occupations totals 4% for the same period. Demand for RNs should increase due to an aging population facing greater incidences of chronic illness and disabilities and who tend to seek care in either long-term residential facilities or their own homes.

    Frequently Asked Questions About Rehabilitation Nurses

    What does a rehab nurse do?

    Rehabilitation nurses care for patients with chronic illnesses and permanent or temporary disabilities and help them transition back into independent living. Rehab nurses work with patients and their family members and collaborate with interdisciplinary teams. Employment settings include hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, residential facilities, and home healthcare.

    What is the difference between a rehabilitation nurse and physical therapist?

    Rehabilitation nurses work on teams of medical professionals, including doctors, therapists, and mental healthcare providers, to help implement rehabilitation plans for patients with disabilities and long-term illnesses. An RN working in a rehab center, for instance, may be responsible for the patients’ medical needs such as caring for feeding tubes and catheters. Though physical therapists may work in teams with rehab nurses, physical therapists focus more on improving patients’ movement and mobility issues through therapy and prevention.

    What is the role of a nurse in rehabilitation?

    Rehab nurses take on a number of roles. RN-licensed rehabilitation nurses act as caregivers, collaborators, educators, and patient advocates. APRN-level practitioners also fill these roles but generally have more supervisory or management responsibility. MSN-holders in rehab nursing often serve as clinical experts, consultants, direct care providers, managers, researchers, and supervisors.

    Can an RN become a physical therapist?

    RNs complete many of the prerequisites needed to become physical therapists in their ADN or BSN programs, but physical therapists must earn a doctorate in physical therapy, which requires 4-6 more years of study. RNs transitioning into a career in physical therapy also need to pass their state physical therapist licensure exam.

    Resources for Rehabilitation Nurses

    • Association of Rehabilitation Nurses

      In addition to conferring CRRN certification, ARN supports rehabilitation nursing with networking and educational resources, advocacy, and research. Member benefits include free continuing education, an online community, special interest groups, local chapters, volunteer opportunities, and publications. ARN offers memberships at the RN/CRRN and nonvoting affiliate levels.
    • The National Rehabilitation Association

      NRA advocates for individuals with disabilities and promotes ethical and collaborative rehabilitation practice. Its diverse membership includes professionals in rehabilitation healthcare, counseling, education, and research. NRA enrollment includes state chapter membership; students, new professionals, and retirees can join at discounted rates. Benefits include publications and an annual conference.
    • American Nurses Association

      ANA offers specialty certifications in pain management, gerontology, ambulatory care, and other areas applicable to rehabilitation nursing through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Membership benefits include resources in career advancement, professional development, networking, and advocacy for nurses in all specializations. National Student Nurses Association members can join ANA free of charge.

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    Portrait of Elizabeth Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

    Elizabeth Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

    Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner who provides primary and urgent care to pediatric populations. She earned a BSN and MSN from the University of Miami.

    Clarke is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.

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