Rehabilitation Nursing Career Guide
Rehabilitation Nurse At a Glance
What you’ll do: Care for patients working to regain skills for daily living after an injury, illness, or condition such as a stroke
Where you’ll work: Hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, home health agencies
Degree you’ll need: Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
Median salary: $77,600
Rehabilitation nurses specialize in helping patients with injuries, disabilities, and chronic illnesses to recover or adapt to new circumstances and regain their independence. They work with care teams to set goals and treatment plans for their patients to reach optimal health and function while also providing advocacy and support for families and caregivers as patients return home.
How to Become a Rehabilitation Nurse
Use these steps as a guide as you pursue a career as a rehabilitation nurse.
Decide if rehabilitation nursing is right for you.
This specialty requires close work with patients and families who may be struggling to rebuild their lives.
Determine what education you’ll need.
Rehab nursing requires an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited program.
Graduate from an accredited nursing program.
Earning an ADN takes approximately two years, while a BSN typically takes four years.
Get licensed as a registered nurse (RN).
To become an RN requires passing the National Council Licensure Examination-RN (NCLEX-RN) exam.
Consider earning a certification.
Eligible nurses can earn a Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurses (CRRN) certification to demonstrate their expertise and potentially advance their career.
What Is a Rehab Nurse and What Do They Do?
Rehabilitation nurses work with patients to help them regain or keep skills and abilities they need for daily life and to maintain as much independence as possible. Conditions that can require rehabilitation include:
“As rehab nurses, we continue to care for individuals with stroke, traumatic brain injury, and spinal cord injury on a regular basis,” says Pamala D. Larsen, PhD, MS, RN, professor emerita at the Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing at the University of Wyoming and editor-in-chief of the journal Rehabilitation Nursing. She says other common patients include those with cancer, heart failure, neurodegenerative diseases, and joint replacements.
Rehabilitation nurses work with patients to help them regain or keep skills and abilities they need for daily life and to maintain as much independence as possible.
Many rehab patients are baby boomers, and there’s good reason for this. They were the first generation to actively pursue physical fitness, Larsen says, and since boomers are living longer, they have a greater chance of disease and injury.
Rehabilitation nurses work as part of an integrated team of healthcare providers—including psychiatrists and occupational, physical, and speech therapists—to develop care plans to help patients reach their goals.
“Rehabilitation patients need a whole team of professionals working together to provide optimal care,” Larsen says. “Team conferences are held regularly with the patient, family, and all the professionals involved with their care. The interdisciplinary team is essential.”
Rehab nurses strive to maintain a healing environment. Their main responsibilities and duties include:
Where You’ll Work
Rehabilitation nurses work in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings:
Education to Become a Rehabilitation Nurse
To become a rehabilitation nurse, you’ll need at least an ADN. However, you can also take the next step and earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). With either degree, you’ll need to follow up your education by taking the NCLEX-RN exam and becoming a registered nurse.
Larsen says there are advantages to choosing a BSN or continuing onto one later:
For some prospective nursing students, an online program may be the way to go if you work or have other responsibilities.
If you have work and family responsibilities to juggle or you don’t live near a college campus, an online program could be a good choice.
It’s important to note, however, that nursing programs aren’t entirely online. While you’ll generally be able to attend classroom lectures and do your coursework online, you’ll need to do all clinical rotations, labs, and any other hands-on training in person.
If you have work and family responsibilities to juggle or you don’t live near a college campus, an online program could be a good choice. But make sure you have the discipline and motivation to manage your studies without the oversight you’d receive in a campus classroom.
What to Look for in a School
When comparing nursing programs, look for the following:
School and program accreditation. Look for accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). This seal of approval means a program has been reviewed by education experts and delivers the education you’ll need to be a nurse.
The first-time pass rate for students who took the national nursing license exam in the most recent academic year. These rates can help you determine if your program is adequately preparing students for a nursing career.
Job placement and career counseling. Does the nursing program have established relationships with medical facilities where you can do clinicals or seek a job when you graduate?
The percentage of graduates from the most recent graduating class who have jobs as nurses. A career in rehabilitation nursing is the end goal, so look for a program that has a strong placement rate.
Once you graduate, you’ll need to obtain a registered nurse (RN) license to practice. To do this, you must first pass the National Council Licensure Examination-RN (NCLEX-RN). Here’s what to expect from the exam.
After you pass the NCLEX-RN, you’ll be ready to apply for a license with your state board of nursing. In addition to a passing score on the exam, some states have additional requirements, such as references or background checks. Check with your state board to find out more.
As part of your nursing program, you’ll get clinical training in a healthcare setting. You can use this experience and the network and relationships you develop to help land your first job.
Larsen notes that the U.S. has had a persistent nursing shortage, so there are employment opportunities in many parts of the country. “Many rehab nurses have worked in ‘general nursing’ first and find that helpful as they begin their career,” she says.
While general nursing experience isn’t necessary, Larsen adds, “Typically, but not always, rehabilitation is an area of practice where nurses come to it a bit later in their career than in other specialties.”
Once you have some experience in rehab nursing, you’ll be eligible to apply for a specialty certification. A credential is not required, but it demonstrates your skills and knowledge in a specific area. It can also help you advance your career and receive professional recognition.
Rehab nurses are eligible to earn a Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN) certification from the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses (ARN).
Salary and Career Outlook
The median annual salary for an RN is $77,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with the bottom 10% earning less than $59,450 and the top 10% earning more than $120,250. Though the BLS doesn’t have salary data for specialty fields, nurses who specialize can earn more.
The BLS projects nursing jobs to grow by 9% from 2020 to 2030. The aging baby boom population, which is living longer, is driving a lot of demand for jobs across healthcare. While job prospects are good for RNs in general, those with a BSN or a specialty may have a leg up, according to the BLS.
For rehab nurses, there is an added advantage since hospitals are discharging patients faster than in the past and sending them to long-term and outpatient facilities, which are seeing their populations expand.
While job prospects are good for RNs in general, those with a BSN or a specialty may have a leg up, according to the BLS.
You’ll want to stay on top of the latest advancements and issues in rehab nursing once you launch your career. One way to do this is to connect with other professionals. This can help you network, expand your knowledge, keep up with the latest in our field and advance your career.
Here are a few professional resources to leverage: