Rehabilitation Nursing Career Guide 

nurse assists injured patient into wheelchair
nurse assists injured patient into wheelchair

Rehabilitation Nurse at a glance

Where you’ll work: Hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and home health agencies.

What you’ll do: Help patients recover from various injuries and illnesses or manage chronic conditions and disabilities. They often help their patients regain or maintain physical skills and abilities through a treatment plan.

Minimum degree required: You will need at least an ADN or BSN.

Who it’s a good fit for: Because you are often working with patients over a longer period of time, patience is crucial for rehab nurses. Empathy and compassion are also important when working with people who may be physically and emotionally fatigued with their condition.

Job perks: You get to help people on a long and possibly life-changing healing journey, and see their progress from beginning to end.

Opportunities if you pursue a higher degree or certification: You can get a Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN) certification from the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses (ARN) after gaining experience in a rehabilitation setting. This certification is widely recognized and could boost your potential for promotion and a higher salary.

Median annual 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.

woman looking at laptop

This specialty requires close work with patients and families who may be struggling to rebuild their lives.

Determine what education you’ll need.

nursing instructor showing students instructional skeleton

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.

woman in cap and gown receiving diploma

Earning an ADN takes approximately two years, while a BSN typically takes four years.

Get licensed as a registered nurse (RN).

nurse in mask examining clipboard

To become an RN requires passing the National Council Licensure Examination-RN (NCLEX-RN) exam.

Consider earning a certification.

nursing helping patient with stretching exercise

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:

  • Organ transplant
  • Stroke
  • Burns
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Surgery
  • Amputation
  • Car, work, or other accident

“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:

  • Educating patients, families, and caregivers about managing a patient’s recovery or living with physical limitations
  • Helping patients set rehab goals and continually assessing their condition and progress
  • Helping patients and families learn care skills and techniques to regain independence
  • Administering medications
  • Lifting patients and changing medical dressings
  • Coordinating care with other providers on a patient’s healthcare team

Is Rehab Nursing a Good Fit for You?


There are certain traits that are crucial for healthcare providers in general, but some are particularly important when it comes to rehabilitation nursing:

  • Compassion: Patients who need rehabilitation care may be adjusting to new treatments and lifestyles. These can be frustrating and difficult times that require compassion and understanding.
  • Honesty: Setting realistic goals for a patient and being honest about their progress and outlook is important for establishing trust and managing expectations.
  • Patience: Every patient will have different challenges and ways of reacting and responding to rehabilitation. Patience is an important part of caring for someone on their path to recovery.

Where You’ll Work

Rehabilitation nurses work in a variety of inpatient and outpatient settings:

  • Hospitals care for patients with head injuries, orthopedic conditions, multiple body traumas, and more.
  • Rehabilitation facilities typically provide outpatient care, which is a next step after hospital care, to focus on speech, physical, and occupational therapy.
  • Home health agencies send nurses to patients’ homes to help them adjust and learn to use new skills. These rehab nurses are focused on helping patients maintain their independence and preventing a return to the hospital.
  • Long-term acute care facilities provide intensive treatment for patients who receive specialized nursing care around the clock.
  • Skilled nursing facilities with rehabilitation provide inpatient care for patients who don’t require intensive care but may need medicines or other therapies.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs treats veterans with a variety of injuries and disabilities through rehabilitation that includes prosthetics and sensory aids.

A Day in the Life of a Rehab Nurse


Larsen says that most rehabilitation patients stay in a facility for two to three weeks or more, each assigned to a primary nurse who oversees their care as part of an interdisciplinary team. Each day starts with a physical assessment and, if applicable, medication.

“Your day caring for your assigned patients is based on their needs and the goals established by the team—with patient and family input,” she says. “Patients’ days are quite structured in a rehabilitation facility as they have physical therapy, occupational therapy, and perhaps speech therapy. Some of your patients may (see) a psychologist to address their psychosocial needs.”

The rehabilitation nurse coordinates all of this care.

“You may spend time educating the patient and family about their condition and medications,” Larsen says, and the care they will need when they go home. “An example might be teaching a patient how to catheterize themselves. You may develop a bowel and bladder program for a patient who may be unable to feel sensation of their bowel or bladder. The family is very involved with the care of a rehabilitation patient, so time may be spent with the family educating them as well as supporting them during this stressful time in a facility.”

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:

  • BSN programs expose students to broader patient backgrounds and better prepare them for complex patients.
  • Many rehabilitation facilities prefer nurses with a BSN, and some will only hire nurses with a four-year degree.
  • A nurse with a bachelor’s degree has more opportunities for leadership roles and advancement.

Associate Degree in Nursing

  • Prerequisites: They vary based on the program, but generally include a high school diploma or GED, certain minimum GPA, college entrance exam scores, transcripts, essays and recommendations, and courses such as English, algebra, biology, chemistry, statistics, and nutrition.
  • Core Curriculum: Coursework typically includes
    • Anatomy
    • Microbiology and immunology
    • Introduction to nursing
    • Nursing health assessments
    • Professional issues in nursing

“Communication is key in nursing,” says Larsen, “so the addition of those types of courses would be advantageous.”   

  • Clinical Requirements: They vary by state but typically consist of 200 or more hours of experience with different kinds of patients at a medical facility such as a hospital or inpatient or outpatient rehab center.
  • Time to Complete: Generally, it takes two years of full-time school to complete an associate degree.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

  • Prerequisites: They vary based on the program, but generally include a high school diploma or GED, certain minimum GPA, college entrance exam scores, transcripts, essays and recommendations, and courses such as English, algebra, biology, chemistry, statistics, and nutrition.
  • Core Curriculum: Coursework typically includes
    • Nursing Care
    • Research in Nursing
    • Pharmacology
    • Health Promotion and Risk Reduction
    • Pathophysiology

Larsen recommends also taking advanced anatomy, physiology, communications, and genetics courses.

  • Clinical Requirements: They vary by state but typically consist of 700 or more hours of experience with different types of patients at a medical facility such as a hospital or inpatient or outpatient rehab center.
  • Time to Complete: It usually takes four years of full-time school to complete a BSN.

Online Programs

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.

Licensure

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.

Format: The exam is a computer adaptive test (CAT), which means the questions are tailored to each student based on the test taker’s answer to the previous question. Questions include multiple-choice, drag-and-drop, and fill-in-the-blank.

Knowledge Tested: You can expect the exam to cover areas of basic care and comfort; health promotion and maintenance; pharmacological and medical therapies; reduction of risk potential; safety and infection control; and more.

Number of Questions: The exam has a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 265. The number you’ll need to answer will depend on how well you do as you progress through the questions.

Time: The exam runs five to six hours with two scheduled breaks.

Test Prep Resources: You can find practice exams through various test-prep organizations, but to take a practice exam closest to the real NCLEX-RN, purchase a packet from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). You’ll get two tests with 125 questions to be taken in one sitting on your computer.

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.

Gain Experience

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.”

Certification

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).

What It Is: A specialty certification for experienced rehabilitation nurses who want to advance their work in rehab.

Who It’s For: Licensed RNs who have worked in rehab nursing during two of the past five years, or nurses who have one year of rehab nursing and one year of advanced study beyond a BSN within the past five years.

Requirements: Candidates submit contact information for two colleagues to verify their experience: one immediate supervisor or another CRRN, and another colleague, such as a fellow nurse, therapist, or physician.

Exam and Prep: The exam is three hours long and contains 175 multiple-choice questions that cover four areas:

  • Rehabilitation nursing models and theories
  • Functional health patterns
  • The function of rehabilitation team and community reintegration
  • Legislative, economic, ethical, and legal issues

Candidates are encouraged to review the CRRN Candidate Handbook and then apply to take the exam. You can also review the CRRN Exam Content Outline. The Association of Rehabilitation Nurses also has study resources.

Salary and Career Outlook

The median annual salary for an RN is $77,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Though the BLS doesn’t have salary data for specialty fields, nurses who specialize can earn more. Take a look at median annual salaries by state and percentile:

Registered Nurses

National data

Median Salary: $77,600

Projected job growth: 6.2%

10th Percentile: $59,450

25th Percentile: $61,790

75th Percentile: $97,580

90th Percentile: $120,250

Projected job growth: 6.2%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alaska $99,110 $77,450 $127,020
Alabama $60,510 $47,390 $78,670
Arkansas $61,530 $47,510 $79,440
Arizona $78,260 $60,750 $100,200
California $125,340 $78,070 $165,620
Colorado $78,070 $60,550 $100,870
Connecticut $83,860 $61,470 $110,580
District of Columbia $95,220 $62,700 $129,670
Delaware $75,380 $59,900 $99,780
Florida $75,000 $49,680 $95,630
Georgia $75,040 $58,400 $98,410
Hawaii $111,070 $75,380 $129,670
Iowa $61,790 $48,290 $79,260
Idaho $75,560 $59,640 $98,030
Illinois $77,580 $59,640 $100,650
Indiana $62,400 $48,400 $90,260
Kansas $61,790 $47,630 $79,360
Kentucky $62,480 $48,000 $82,410
Louisiana $64,450 $48,920 $94,360
Massachusetts $94,960 $61,180 $151,310
Maryland $78,350 $60,420 $101,650
Maine $75,040 $59,640 $98,780
Michigan $76,710 $60,120 $98,510
Minnesota $79,100 $60,850 $101,610
Missouri $61,920 $47,350 $94,690
Mississippi $60,790 $47,210 $78,670
Montana $75,000 $60,320 $97,260
North Carolina $72,220 $51,420 $95,360
North Dakota $73,250 $59,810 $95,360
Nebraska $64,000 $55,040 $84,910
New Hampshire $77,230 $59,900 $99,580
New Jersey $94,690 $70,920 $117,990
New Mexico $78,340 $60,320 $98,660
Nevada $79,360 $61,790 $119,530
New York $96,170 $61,260 $127,080
Ohio $74,080 $59,540 $94,690
Oklahoma $62,170 $47,960 $79,940
Oregon $99,410 $76,180 $127,680
Pennsylvania $76,940 $59,640 $98,680
Rhode Island $78,900 $61,340 $101,650
South Carolina $72,650 $47,860 $86,820
South Dakota $60,550 $47,470 $77,360
Tennessee $62,390 $48,190 $81,950
Texas $77,320 $59,780 $99,070
Utah $75,000 $59,640 $95,160
Virginia $76,900 $59,170 $100,990
Vermont $75,380 $59,640 $98,030
Washington $96,980 $74,070 $127,320
Wisconsin $76,560 $60,060 $98,970
West Virginia $62,390 $47,450 $87,440
Wyoming $75,000 $59,650 $98,140

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Job Outlook

The BLS projects nursing jobs to grow by 6 percent through 2031. 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.

Professional Resources

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:

Organization

What They Do

The Association of Rehabilitation Nurses

Holds conferences and webinars and offers certification

Rehabilitation Nursing Journal

Covers the latest research in rehab nursing and other topics 

The American Association of Neuroscience Nurses

Specializes in rehab nursing for patients with neurological problems. It holds conferences and offers certification and education. 

RehabCast

A podcast that focuses on the latest in rehab medicine



nia martin

Written and reported by:

Nia Martin

Contributing Writer

pamala larsen

With professional insight from:

Pamala D. Larsen, PhD, MS, RN

Professor Emerita, Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing, University of Wyoming; Editor-in-Chief, Rehabilitation Nursing

.