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You may encounter the term “physical rehabilitation” at some point in your life and wonder what it means. When we speak of physical therapy, many individuals are unaware of all the treatments, therapies, and procedures it encompasses. Many individuals conflate physical therapy and rehab; nevertheless, physical therapy falls under the broader category of physical rehabilitation.

Physical rehabilitation is a broader word that encompasses multiple disciplines, although physical therapy comes under its scope. Learn more about physical rehabilitation, its various types, the difference between physical therapy and rehab, and much more with this overview.

Physical rehabilitation refers to the process of restoring a person’s physical function after injury or deconditioning.

Physical rehabilitation is often a lengthy process that begins in the hospital following surgery or an injury and continues in skilled nursing care facilities, outpatient therapy, in-home therapy, and other settings.

Physiatrists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and, of course, physical therapists are among the rehab professionals that a patient may work with during physical therapy.

For instance, if you fractured your wrist and it was immobilized in a cast for several months, you may require physical rehab to restore your range of motion and strength.

This rehabilitation will assist you with everyday tasks such as cooking, working, bathing, and caring for children, among others. You would most likely undergo therapy from a certified hand therapist, who may be a physical therapist or occupational therapist with further training.

A stroke survivor may participate in physical rehabilitation to restore balance, regain range of motion and strength on one side of the body, and retrain how to drive or feed themselves. To achieve their goals, they would likely collaborate with an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, and a speech therapist.

There are numerous other circumstances in which physical rehabilitation is beneficial.

The treatments are meant to enhance your life quality by reinstating the natural performance of your body. Joints, tendons, muscles, ligaments, spinal cord, brain, bones, or nervous system may be affected by the illnesses or injuries treated.

Rehabilitation can enhance not only your physical health but also your cognitive and mental health. Additionally, it should be remembered that therapies may vary with age, particularly geriatric and pediatric therapy.

Physical rehabilitation encompasses three primary forms of therapy.

  • Physical therapy
  • Language and Speech Therapy
  • Occupational Therapy

Physical therapy

Physical therapy (PT) is the use of physical methods to treat illness or injury, including exercise, massage, heat, cold treatments, and stretching. Physical therapy can be administered in hospitals, outpatient centers, and at home. It can aid in the treatment of diseases such as joint replacement, arthritis, sports injury, back pain, knee discomfort, and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) is comparable to physical therapy but emphasizes more on living independently, particularly becoming independent in doing daily activities.  These tasks could include cleaning your teeth, putting on clothes, or simply getting up from your bed; each session is tailored to your typical daily activities. Several of the treatments and therapies may also be comparable to those used in physical therapy. Although PT emphasizes increasing your body’s functionality, OT focuses on the daily activities you need or desire to perform.

Speech and Language Therapy

The goal of speech therapy is to enhance communication, and promote language, swallowing, and fluency. Dysphagia, which pertains to trouble swallowing, is one of the most prevalent conditions treated with speech therapy. Dysphagia can be caused by abnormalities in the coordinated movements of the tongue, throat, mouth, and esophagus, which may be caused by a stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, cancer, or recovery from a physical injury.

Dysphasia is a condition in which the ability to speak effectively is compromised. Some clinicians may use the word aphasia interchangeably, however, others use it to refer to a complete loss of speech.

Physical rehab may have been referred to as “physical therapy” in the past. Yet, they are not the same. Physical therapy may be incorporated into the plan for physical rehabilitation, although it is not required. Physical therapy is an interventional option for persons who have sustained particular injuries or require relief from specific forms of pain. Physical therapy is used to treat a range of conditions, but its primary objective is to restore body function through exercise.

A physical therapist utilizes a properly structured physical therapy exercise program to assist patients who have lost function in the following body parts:

  • Ligaments
  • Muscles
  • Ligaments

A physical therapist might develop a physical therapy plan if, for instance, a person got injured in a car accident and suffered a spine injury that resulted in a partial loss of limb function. With the assistance of a physiatrist, they would focus on the mobility of all the muscles in the feet and legs.

Usually, daily training of limbs that have lost function produces results. However, early intervention is crucial regarding physical therapy. Injured individuals with reduced movement in some body regions are also assisted by physical therapists. They assist individuals with reduced mobility through exercise and educate them on how to practice activities at home.

Based on the nature of the condition, there are multiple reasons to consult a therapist when it comes to implementing a single or a mix of different types of physical therapy. It enables the physical therapist to properly assess and determine the patient’s condition and the physical therapy approaches that should be used to relieve and rehabilitate the patient’s body. The patient might need a certain evidence-based method of occupational, speech-language, or physical therapy. The therapist will suggest you a certain type of therapist for subsequent procedures.

Among the leading causes for seeking rehab for physical therapy is:

  • Injuries that, if left untreated, become more difficult to recover from over time.
  • Loss of physical mobility in the tendons and muscles that is not solely attributable to age. It is natural, yet it can also be avoided.
  • A deterioration of chronic discomfort.
  • Parkinson’s disease, osteoarthritis, and multiple sclerosis are among the more serious diseases treated.

This is crucial to emphasize that while self-medication may reduce the related discomfort, it does not treat the underlying problem. It is unusual for anything to hurt. Indeed, it is a physiologic indication requiring quick treatment.

Each individual who goes to a physical rehabilitation center is evaluated by a skilled specialist who develops a customized treatment plan. Due to the variety of individuals who attend a rehab center, there are countless ways to help in their recovery from injury or discomfort. Physical rehabilitation institutes provide urgent care to those who have endured:

  • Serious Injury
  • Spinal Injury
  • Brain Injury
  • Stroke

Acute care assists patients in coping with the aftereffects of a severe injury by focusing on certain body regions.

Inpatient rehab is also available at physical rehabilitation institutes. Inpatient therapy is for those who have sustained a significant injury and require a longer time to recuperate. Individuals undergoing inpatient therapy must remain in a rehabilitation institution until they regain their mobility.

Outpatient rehab is the next phase of therapy. Outpatient therapy can benefit both individuals with chronic pain and those who have had major injuries. Primarily, outpatient rehab is utilized to maintain restored function. Nevertheless, some individuals may seek outpatient rehabilitation for conditions like chronic back pain.


A physiatrist, often known as a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R), is a specialist in physical medicine. Physiatrists are board-certified doctors who attended medical school and have advanced, specified training in physical medicine and rehab in addition to their board certification.

Physiatrists treat disorders that affect the neurological and musculoskeletal systems. They play a vital role in organizing and referring patients to occupational, physical, and speech therapists.

Physiatrists utilize a variety of interventions, such as:

  • Sonography-guided procedures
  • Nerve stimulators or blocks
  • Injections in the joints or vertebrae
  • EMG/nerve conduction studies
  • Spasticity treatments
  • Muscle and nerve biopsies
  • Osteopathic treatment
  • Orthotic and prosthetic prescriptions

Physical Therapist

During physical therapy, you may be sent to a physical therapist. Your physical therapist will examine and treat you to recover and restore function, alleviate discomfort, avoid permanent disability, and enhance your mobility. PTs operate in a variety of settings with individuals of all ages.

A ‘Physical therapist’ is defined by The American Physical Therapy Association, the regulatory body for physical therapists in the U. S as movement experts who improve life quality via hands-on care, prescribed exercise, and patient education.

Among the treatments your physical therapist may employ are:

  • Initial mobilization
  • Resistance and strength training
  • Balance and vestibular workouts
  • Exercise prescriptions
  • Transfer training
  • Gait training
  • Stretching
  • Physical agents like thermal modalities, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation
  • Massage, myofascial release, and dry needling are all examples of manual therapies.

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists (OTs) are board-certified health professionals who work with individuals of all ages to encourage meaningful vocational engagement.

Occupational categories include bathing, toileting, meal preparation, religious activities, employment, sex, hobbies, and caregiving.

By allowing an individual to participate in meaningful occupations, OTs believe that health and well-being are enhanced. Distinctive to the profession is its overall approach to rehab.

In addition to improving physical function in the musculoskeletal system, occupational therapists will analyze a patient’s environment and any psychological, social, spiritual, or cognitive issues that may be contributing to their limitations.

Occupational therapists employ a variety of approaches to assist individuals in achieving their goals. 

Some examples are:

  • Retraining in daily life activities (such as dressing, bathing, and using the restroom) and instrumental tasks of daily life (e.g., preparing meals, laundry, caring for others, and home maintenance)
  • Environmental alterations
  • Recommendations for adaptive technology or assistive devices
  • Splint fabrication
  • Training in the conservation of energy
  • Patient and caregiver education
  • Use of physical agents such as Ultrasound, heat modalities, and electrotherapy
  • Physical activity that promotes equilibrium, range of motion, strength, and fine motor skills
  • Sensory integration
  • Mindfulness practices
  • Lymphedema therapy

Speech-Language Therapist

The third part of the rehabilitation therapy team consists of speech and language pathologists (SLPs), commonly known as speech therapists. SLPs are board-certified healthcare experts, similar to PTs and OTs.

SLPs treat issues involving language, speech, swallowing, hearing, and cognition to improve a patient’s communication abilities or eating and drinking safety.

Speech therapists can treat the physical problems influencing a patient’s ability to communicate or swallow within the framework of physical rehabilitation.

These are some of the interventions used by speech therapists:

  • Oral-motor exercises
  • Home language exercises and programs
  • Conservational measures
  • Textural modification of drinks or food
  • Exercises that enhance tongue mobility or chewing
  • Recommendations for alternate and augmentative communication devices

There are several varieties of physical therapy and rehabilitation centers. You can engage in physical rehabilitation in numerous contexts. If you undergo surgery or a serious accident, you may move from the most invasive setting (hospital, residential, or inpatient) to the minimally-invasive setting (outpatient care) (home or outpatient). Alternatively, you may receive counseling in a single location.

Examples of physical rehab settings include:

  • Hospitals
  • Centers for subacute or inpatient physical rehab
  • Nursing homes with specialized care and rehab facilities
  • Home settings
  • Outpatient treatment centers
  • School settings

Here are some of the most frequent types of facilities that provide physical rehabilitation services:

Hospital Rehab

Hospitals employ rehabilitation specialists who collaborate with patients following surgery or therapy, typically while the person is still hospitalized. During the initial days after recovery, these specialists visit the patient’s room and work with them.

Therapists will also assess if and how many sessions of extra therapy are required, as well as the patient’s post-discharge therapy program. Most general hospitals are not equipped to provide long-term rehab and will refer patients to another facility for further care.

Inpatient Rehab

If a person no longer requires the degree of care provided by hospitalization but still requires 24-hour care, they will be moved to an inpatient rehabilitation clinic for treatment.

Typically, a stay at one of these institutions is less expensive than in a hospital due to the lower quality of medical care. The purpose of the therapists at inpatient centers is to facilitate the patient’s progress and recovery so that they can ultimately return home.

Outpatient Rehab

Once a patient is sufficiently well to leave an inpatient rehab center or hospital, they will frequently still require outpatient rehabilitation.

Typically, this is delivered at an outpatient facility; however, it is feasible for therapists to perform, provide or administer treatments at the patient’s residence. As the condition improves, the frequency of these treatments may decrease to once per week or less frequently.

Continuous Maintenance

Frequently, the rehab process is lengthy and difficult. Frequently, therapists give patients home routines to maintain their recovery and recommend appointments every few months to assess their improvement and make any required adjustments.

After a serious accident, physical trauma, surgery, illness, or another event that caused loss of function, physical rehabilitation can rebuild you to your previous level of function or full potential.

In addition to increasing your strength, you may also experience a reduction in discomfort and an improvement in your exercise tolerance, balance, and endurance. In addition to enhancing your safety at home, physical therapy can avoid falls and hospital readmissions.

The health aspects of rehabilitation will transition to your daily activities. You may be able to switch to walking without support equipment after using a wheelchair, go back to work, wash and dress independently, or resume a meaningful interest you had to abandon due to your condition.

The American Occupational Therapy Association and The American Physical Therapy Association conducted a study that indicated “significant rehabilitative value” in 1.4 million Medicare patients. Researchers discovered that rehab with PTs and OTs improved patient function and decreased hospitalization in post-acute healthcare settings. Furthermore, those who received more therapy had better outcomes than those who received less. 

Physiatry, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy are all evidence-based disciplines that do constant research to determine the most effective treatments for certain disorders. Physical rehabilitation is not a straightforward ascent. You may experience setbacks, and your road to recovery may resemble a roller coaster rather than a straight line.

It is also essential to realize that total independence is not the objective for everyone. When developing your treatment, your rehab specialists should consider your particular needs, values, culture, and personal aspirations. For instance, you may wish to shift from a wheelchair to a walker, but you may not. Instead, you may like to enhance your wheelchair driving and navigation skills or learn a wheelchair-specific activity.

Your therapists will integrate your choices into your therapy plan, as both scenarios are classified as physical rehabilitation.



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