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A Look at Physical Rehab

When people experience a serious illness or injury, they may need some extra help to regain their mobility, their speech or even their very independence – that’s where physical rehab comes in. 

Physical rehabilitation – or rehab – is part of a broader medical field known formally as Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R), or physiatry.  Rehab is necessary when an illness or injury causes a loss of functionality in the body.  That could include something in the nervous system, a problem with the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles or brain.

Physical rehab is often necessary as part of the response to serious illnesses and injuries, including stroke, chronic pain, arthritis, heart attack or severe infection. 

The Rehab Team

Physical rehab is usually overseen by a PM&R physician, also known as a physiatrist.  PM&R physicians may also have a subspecialty in:

Brain Injury Medicine

Hospice Care

Palliative Care

Neuromuscular Medicine

Pain Medicine

Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine

Spinal Cord Injury Medicine

Sports Medicine

The PM&R doctor will work closely with your other physicians to implement a rehab plan.  For example, if you’re a stroke patient, that would involve working with a neurologist and your primary care physician.  On the other hand, if you suffered a major sports injury, the treatment plan would involve working with your sports medicine and orthopedic doctors. 

PM&R doctors work with a team.  Specially trained therapists are often called on to work with rehab patients:

Speech language pathologists are trained professionals and communication experts who help patients with their speech.  They work with young children, older adults and everyone in between.  They work with people who have had a traumatic medical event that affected their speech, such as a stroke. 

Physical therapists are trained experts in helping people regain their ability to move, reduce pain and restore function.  Physical therapists are often found in an orthopedic setting, helping patients recover from an injury to a joint.  They also work with stroke patients, helping them regain mobility and balance, as well as with people who are recovering from certain surgeries.

Occupational therapists help with daily activities, such as eating, drinking and bathing.  They work with children and adults with disabilities who need help to better participate in school and other functions.  Occupational therapists also work with people who have suffered stroke or other conditions that have adversely affected cognitive ability and require specialized help to complete certain tasks. 

Nurses, dieticians, social workers, psychologists and counselors may also be part of a rehab team.  In addition, an effective team also involves family members, who play an important role supporting a loved one’s rehab journey. 

Where Does Rehab Take Place?

When someone needs rehab, it is generally best to start it just as soon as the patient is able.  That could mean rehab starts in the hospital following a surgery.  Depending on how much support and care the patient needs, rehab may continue at an inpatient rehabilitation facility – this allows the patient to undergo rehab while also having access to ongoing medical care.  Skilled nursing facilities are also available to serve patients.

After a patient has been discharged from one of these facilities, he or she will continue to rehab at home and go into a health care provider’s office for additional therapy sessions. 

Purpose of Rehab

The purpose of physical rehab is to help a patient live as normally as possible following an illness or injury that has compromised their ability to do so. 

A patient may need help relearning to walk or maintaining balance.  Daily functions we take for granted, such as going to the bathroom, taking a bath, or eating a meal may need to be re-learned. 

If an injury or illness has necessitated use of wheelchair, the patient must learn how to transition from the wheelchair to a bed or into a car.  These are the types of essential skills and function that rehab can help a patient with. 

Top Reasons for Physical Rehab

There are numerous reasons someone may need physical rehab at some point in their lives.  Some of the most common include:


A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted and the cells in the affected part of the brain begin to die. 

Depending on the severity of the stoke, the patient may lose the ability to complete tasks and activities that we take for granted.  Talking, walking, reading, writing and using a hand to lift or hold something can all be negatively affected by a stroke. 

Following a stroke, a physiatrist, working with your other physicians, will work to get a stroke patient into physical rehab as soon as possible.  Speech, occupational and physical therapy may all be necessary to help a stroke patient recover. 

These therapists, working under the physician, will typically assign stroke patients the most challenging rehab programs they can handle, based upon the severity of the stroke, age and overall health. 

Joint Problems

An injury to a joint may require rehab.  Rehab can help people with an injured joint safely increase their range of motion and strengthen the muscles and tendons that support the joint.  As with any injury, a measured and deliberate approach to recovery is essential so the injury is not worsened.  Rehab is also an option in cases where severe arthritis has limited the use of the joints. 

Physical rehab is an essential component of recovery from joint replacement surgery.  Recovery activity begins almost immediately after the procedure, often on the same day.  Knee and hip replacement recovery starts with use of a walker or crutches.  A physical therapist will provide instructions on a graduated walking program and how to gradually resume more challenging activities, such as climbing stairs. 


Millions of people are affected by chronic pain. Pain management specialists have numerous strategies available to help patients with pain, including physical and occupational therapy.   Particularly for someone with an orthopedic injury, it’s essential to regain strength and movement in a way that does not worsen the injury. 

Rehab: A Key Part of Health Care

None of us want to have an injury or illness that requires rehab, but sometimes it is necessary.  If you one day find yourself in that situation, rest assured that there are highly-trained and qualified health care professionals ready to help you recover and regain some or all of what you have lost – be it mobility, speech or independence. 

And if you have a loved one who will undergo rehab, they will need your help.  A strong support network helps increase the odds of a successful rehabilitation. 

This article has been reviewed and approved by a panel of Privia Medical Group North Texas physicians. 

This article contains information sourced from:

National Library of Medicine

Johns Hopkins Medicine

American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

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