Rehabilitation Nurse

Nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists may sub-specialize as rehabilitation nurses and work with patients who have a temporary, progressive, or permanent disability or illness that limits their ability to function in daily life. These nurses work as part of a rehab team, which may include various personnel ranging from a primary care physician, to a physical therapist, to a spiritual counselor; all of whom work in concert to design and implement a plan of care best suited to each patient’s needs.

Rehab nurses work with a wide range of patient populations and types, ranging from those who have recently had joint replacement surgery, to those who have suffered a stroke, to those with sports or occupational injuries, to those with severe spinal cord injuries or other chronic, progressive conditions such as multiple sclerosis. Depending on the nature and stage of a patient’s condition, the goals of rehabilitation might be to prevent secondary disability, improve the body’s function, return patients to their former functioning state, or assist patients adapt to a new state of functioning.

Rehab nursing skills include:

  • Treating changes in the functional ability and lifestyle of people dealing with injury, disability, and chronic illness
  • Educating patients and helping them with adjustments that support their health
  • Supporting adaptive capabilities
  • Promoting achievable independence
  • Providing holistic, comprehensive, and compassionate end-of-life care for patients with life-limiting conditions

Rehab Nurse Roles and Work Settings

Rehab nurses practice in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, patients’ homes, rehabilitation facilities, and long-term care facilities. These nurses may also work for educational institutions or insurance companies, for other private companies, or in private practice.

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Rehab nurses may be staff nurses or advanced practice nurses (clinical nurse specialists or nurse practitioners), who sub-specialize in rehabilitative care under a primary patient population focus. Advanced practice rehabilitation nurses often hold multiple specializations in areas such as gerontological care, pain management, cardiac care, or pediatrics. Advanced practice rehab nurses can take on additional responsibilities, as permitted by their advanced practice nursing license, which allows them to perform comprehensive assessments, diagnosis, and treatment with more autonomy. The Association of Rehabilitation Nurses states that advanced practice rehabilitation nurses are in a particularly good position to offer cost effective, high quality patient care.

Rehab nurses may be identified by other specializations and roles that include:

  • Case management
  • Community health
  • Consultant
  • Nurse clinician
  • Nurse educator
  • Rehabilitation admissions liaison nurse
  • Researcher


Registered Nurses can get started in rehabilitation nursing with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Continuing education courses are available that introduce nurses to the basics of rehab nursing.

Advanced practice nurses usually hold an MSN specific to their role as nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists under their primary patient population focus. Although master’s degrees specific to advanced practice rehabilitation nursing aren’t available, nurses can pursue other advanced degrees, such as:

  • Master of Health Science (MHS) Degree in Rehabilitation Sciences
  • Executive Masters in Rehabilitation Administration
  • Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Science

The more common option for advanced practice nurses is to pursue an MSN or DNP program, and tailor the nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist clinical practicum to rehabilitation. Nurses can choose the area in which they want to focus by selecting an advanced program specific to a primary patient population focus of interest, such as gerontology, pediatrics, or adult care, and gaining clinical experience in rehabilitative care.

Rehabilitation Nursing Certification

Rehab nurses can earn the Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN) designation through the Rehabilitation Nursing Certification Board (RNCB), an independent component of the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses. The requirements to write the certification exam are a current, unrestricted license as an RN, as well as one of the following:

  • Two years of practice as an RN in rehabilitation nursing within the five years prior to applying
  • One year of practice as an RN in rehabilitation nursing within the five years prior to applying and one year of post-baccalaureate education in nursing

The exam is available to be taken during two, month-long test periods each year through Castle Worldwide Testing Centers. The exam has 175 questions, covering four major areas:

  • Functional health patterns: Theories, physiology, assessment, standards of care, and interventions (68%)
  • Ethical, legislative, economic, and legal issues (15%)
  • The rehabilitation team and helping patients re-enter their community (12%)
  • Rehab nursing models and theories (5%)
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Certification is valid for five years. Renewal requires having at least two years of rehabilitation nursing experience during the five year renewal period, plus either taking and passing the CRRN exam again in the year before the certification expires or submitting 60 points of continuing education/professional activity credit at least three months before the expiration date.


The Association of Rehabilitation Nurses (ARN) provides resources for all RNs who work in rehabilitation. The association publishes the Rehabilitation Nursing Journal and offers research grants through the Rehabilitation Nursing Foundation. The ARN has chapters located throughout the US.

The Rehabilitation Nurse Coordinators’ Network supports nurses who coordinate and/or manage cases for insurance companies.

Nurses working in cardiac or pulmonary rehab may be interested in the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR).

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