How to Become a Rehabilitation Nurse

Learn how to specialize as a Rehabilitation Nurse, including the education, skills, and certifications you’ll need

Nurse with a young male patient

In March of 2021, Comedian Tracy Morgan presented the “Tracy Morgan Award for Excellence in Rehabilitation Nursing” to nurse Patricia Bosompem, RN, CRRN. Patricia was one of the nurses at the JFK Johnson Brain Trauma Unit who cared for the comedian after he was seriously injured and in a coma for two weeks following a serious car accident on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Reflecting on the experience, Patricia thought, “Wow, I did something to change a person’s life.” This is a sentiment that any number of Rehabilitation Nurses across the country could also make. That’s because these nurses play a central role in helping patients recover from accidents or illnesses.

Rehabilitation Nurses help speed up patients’ recoveries after all types of surgeries, including joint replacements, abdominal surgery, or even cancer treatments. Rehabilitation can improve a patient’s range of motion, strengthen their muscles, reduce pain—and even help them recover from a traumatic brain injury.

This article serves as a comprehensive guide to help you learn about the role of a Rehabilitation Nurse, typical duties, required skills, expected salary*, and job outlook. We’ll also review the steps you’ll need to take to become an RN and obtain certification for this specialty.

To learn more about starting your career as an RN, click here to learn how to become a Registered Nurse. You can also read about other popular nursing careers by exploring the different types of hospital nursing jobs.

Rehabilitation Nurse Definition

What is a Rehabilitation Nurse?

Working on a multidisciplinary team, Rehabilitation Nurses, also referred to as Rehab Nurses, help patients with disabilities, injuries, or chronic illnesses to recover and attain optimal function, health, and independence.

Due to the nature of the rehabilitation process, this nursing specialization requires patience, dedication, and the ability to communicate with patients in a way that encourages them to take the small but crucial steps that will pave the way to a full recovery.

Rehabilitation Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Rehabilitation Nurse Do?

Rehabilitation Nurses are RNs who have gained experience in helping patients recover and return to optimal health after surgery. They have usually earned the Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN®) credential to validate their qualifications and specialized knowledge in rehabilitation nursing. This is important because CRRN is recognized as the only accredited certification for Rehabilitation Nurses.

Your primary duty as a Rehab Nurse is to help patients of all ages to adjust to chronic illnesses or injuries and to help them recover from related surgeries. In this specialty, you might help patients with various injuries—like brain or spine injuries—and support patients dealing with issues like heart disease, joint replacements, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, or cancer.

In this role, you’ll also monitor patients’ progress and coordinate care from other healthcare professionals such as physicians, physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and psychiatrists.

An essential part of this nursing specialty centers around educating patients, their families, and the community. You’ll instruct patients as they transition from hospital to home after a hospital stay. You’ll also educate family members on how to best care for and support their loved ones. Plus, you’ll sometimes educate other healthcare professionals or community members on the rehabilitation process or on disease prevention.

Asian nurse helping an elderly man

Rehabilitation Nurse Duties

Rehab Nurses provide direct care to patients, coordinate with other healthcare providers, and take care of administrative duties, including paperwork. Typical duties they perform as part of their everyday work include:

  • Monitor vital signs, administer medicine, and perform treatments
  • Create patient care plans and record patient updates
  • Counsel patients and their families on recovery issues
  • Educate other healthcare professionals on rehab best practices
  • Complete administrative duties and manage patient documentation
  • Advocate for those with disabilities in their communities, schools, and workplaces

Rehabilitation Nurse Skills

A few essential qualities of a Rehabilitation Nurse include interpersonal communication, physical and mental endurance, and empathy. But you’ll also benefit from strong planning and organization skills as you create plans to help patients forge a path to recovery. Here’s why these skills will benefit your work in this nursing specialty:

Interpersonal Communication: Rehabilitation Nurses communicate with patients, families, doctors, and other healthcare professionals regularly. After surgeries and other procedures, they must clearly communicate with patients about recovery plans, rehabilitation activities, medications, and follow-up visits.

Planning and Organization: As patients recover from an illness or injury, a lot of coordination and planning takes place over a long period of time. Much of this work falls on the nurses involved in helping to coordinate care with doctors, surgeons, physical therapists, and other healthcare providers. The ability to solve problems and formulate plans is a must.

Physical and Mental Endurance: Both physical and mental endurance are essential in rehabilitation. Sometimes you’ll help move patients who are immobile. This type of nursing requires patience. Recoveries do not usually happen overnight. The nature of rehabilitation is a long-term effort that requires dedication and perseverance from patients and healthcare providers alike.

Empathy: The ability to relate to patients and families as they rehabilitate from illness or injury is essential. Displaying compassion and empathy while also performing daily clinical and administrative duties helps to humanize each patient’s situation, leading to better care and more positive outcomes.

Where Do Rehabilitation Nurses Work?

Rehab Nurses practice in settings like community or university hospitals, inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation centers, private practices, long-term care facilities, government agencies, and community or home health environments.

As you progress in this nursing specialization, you may also seek opportunities for advancement by preparing for leadership roles like healthcare administrator, researcher, or educator. Some of these positions may require additional education or training, such as earning an MSN degree or another advanced degree.

Rehabilitation Nurse Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Rehabilitation Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Rehabilitation Nurse?

Following are the typical steps to specializing as a Rehabilitation Nurse, including schooling, licensing, and the required certification.

1. Earn a Nursing Degree

To become a Rehabilitation Nurse, you’ll typically complete an ADN (two-year program) or BSN degree (four-year program) at an accredited institution. Note that the accelerated BSN Program at Eagle Gate College can be completed in three years.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

Once you’ve graduated from your nursing program, you’ll prepare for and take the NCLEX-RN exam (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) to become licensed as an RN. This exam is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Their website offers candidates information about the exam, its format, and study aids to help you prepare for the exam.

3. Complete a Certification Program

Once you have two years of experience in rehabilitation nursing, you can become credentialed and increase your employment opportunities by earning the Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN). This credential is available through the Rehabilitation Nursing Certification Board (RNCB). You can also choose to complete other related nursing credentials.

4. Continue Your Training and Education

Once you’re certified, you’ll continue to advance your education and training throughout your career. First, you will need to periodically recertify to maintain your credentials. You may also choose to enroll in continuing education programs that will increase your knowledge regarding the latest in rehabilitation nursing, advances in tools and equipment, and new medications.

Consider joining an organization like ARN, the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses. Local chapters are available in many states. Chapter membership gives you access to seminars, workshops, and opportunities to interact with other Rehabilitation Nurses in your area.

African-American nurse with a patient

Rehabilitation Nurse Salary

How Much Do Rehabilitation Nurses Make?

Although the BLS doesn’t report salary* data specifically for Rehabilitation Nurses, they report that the average salary* for all Registered Nurses is about $83,000 per year, or roughly $40 per hour.

Note that your exact salary* as a Rehabilitation Nurse will vary based on your geographic location, level of education, and experience.

Rehabilitation Nurse Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Rehabilitation Nurses?

As with salary* data, the BLS doesn’t report job outlook data specifically for Rehabilitation Nurses, but they project that employment of all Registered Nurses will grow by 6% from 2021 to 2031. This means that over 200,000 job openings will become available each year. Some of the demand is due to the ongoing nursing shortage, while additional jobs will be created by those who transfer to different occupations or retire from the workforce.

Rehabilitation Nurses may also find opportunities for advancement, including positions such as head nurse, assistant director, educator, or director of nursing. These leadership positions may require a graduate degree in nursing.

Consider Specializing as a Rehabilitation Nurse

Now that you know more about how to become a Rehabilitation Nurse, including some of the common duties, average salaries, and the job outlook, you may be interested in specializing in this nursing field.

Helping patients complete the long journey of recovering from injuries, managing chronic illnesses, or regaining independence can be an extremely satisfying process. While you may never care for a celebrity like nurse Patricia Bosompem did, you may help to change many people’s lives—and feel her same sense of pride and fulfillment.

To begin your preparation to become an RN and and certify as a Rehabilitation Nurse (CRRN), be sure to review the accelerated BSN Program at Eagle Gate College. Or, if you already work as an RN with an associate degree, consider our RN-to-BSN Program.