What is Physical Rehabilitation?

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  • Written By: Karyn Maier
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2019
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Physical rehabilitation is a therapeutic program designed to assist patients who have experienced significant life changes due to undergoing an illness, injury, or surgical procedure. In short, it is a step-by-step process toward recovery. While the primary goal of the program is to restore independence, it also addresses physical limitations and adjustments expected to impact the individual’s life in the future. There are many different types of physical rehabilitation programs that exist, but the broad areas generally fall under orthopedic, cardiopulmonary, neurological, pediatric, and geriatric. An additional category is integumentary rehabilitation, which relates to conditions affecting the skin, such as burns.

It might be tempting to regard physical rehabilitation therapy as a modern concept, but its practice actually dates back thousands of years. In fact, Hippocrates, also known as the “father of medicine,” advocated this type of therapy with innovative treatments of his time, including hydrotherapy and massage. However, global acceptance and formalized training in this field didn’t occur until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, by the early 1920s, research into the potential benefits of physical therapy took off and several key physical rehabilitation organizations sprung up. This may be due in part to reports of the successful rehabilitation in American children who had been afflicted with polio.


While physical rehabilitation is typically recommended for those who have suffered an injury that led to amputation or other conditions that may impair mobility, it can also benefit those who have endured a life-altering event that poses minimal physical challenges. For example, cancer patients that have undergone chemotherapy or surgery may only experience a minor loss of physical functioning but still face difficulties adjusting to life after treatment. Likewise, burn victims may not necessarily lose a limb, but face specific physical challenges simply due to the number of treatments and surgeries that may yet be pending.

The physical rehabilitation process involves a team of health care providers that generally begins with the patient’s primary physician. From there, the individual’s needs and concerns relating to physical discomfort or movement are evaluated and addressed accordingly. This may extend to pain management strategies and the development of a self-care program of exercises that the patient can perform at home. In addition to the services of a physical therapist, an occupational therapist may also become a component of a tailored rehabilitation program.

Physical rehabilitation most often takes place on an outpatient basis in a clinical facility, such as a hospital or physical therapy treatment center. However, many physical therapists are not associated with any facility, choosing to operate independently from an office of even their home instead. In some cases, it may be necessary for the physical therapist to provide treatment in the patient’s home. In addition, some patients begin physical rehabilitation immediately after surgery before leaving the hospital, which is usually the case after receiving an artificial limb or joint.


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