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What is a Rehabilitation Specialist?

By Barbara R. Cochran
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A rehabilitation specialist is a medical or psychosocial professional who assists patients in their recovery from physical injuries or mental illness. The goal is to have the patient return to normal or nearly normal functioning in his or her daily activities. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, and vocational counselors are all specialists in rehabilitation. Respiratory therapists and speech-language pathologists also do rehabilitative work with patients.

After an injury, or for physical strengthening, a physical therapist helps a patient regain mobility and range of motion through exercise and physical training activities. The emphasis is on restoring optimal neuromuscular and skeletal functioning. He or she may also order equipment for the patient to use at home as an adjunct to in-office treatment. An occupational therapist promotes patient adaptation and independence by teaching optimal conservation of physical energy. He or she may also guide patients in activities that promote fine motor skills.

When a person experiences a major mental illness, such as clinical depression or manic-depressive psychosis, a team of professionals usually complement each others' efforts to help the disabled patient. A psychiatrist, often the first professional to intervene, facilitates any rehabilitative measures that follow by prescribing appropriate medication for the patient on a periodic basis. To follow up, a rehabilitation specialist, such as a psychologist or clinical social worker, offers therapy or counseling that is usually frequent, even as often as once-a-week sessions. He or she monitors the psychosocial aspects of the patient's life in an attempt to keep him or her stable and reintegrate him or her into the social world at large, and even into the workforce. A vocational counselor can also help with reintegration into the working world by suggesting alternatives that make accommodation for the patient's disability, whether it is psychological or physical.

Respiratory therapists rehabilitate patients who have breathing difficulties by performing chest percussions, to clear out any obstructing congestion, so that their intake of air will be greater. He or she may also advise patients to use inhalers and a supplemental oxygen sources as part of their rehabilitation. This usually involves therapist instruction on the use of those devices.

A speech therapist intervenes when a patient needs to strengthen his or her mouth and throat muscles, either after an injury or because of some congenital condition. Typically, the therapist's goal is to improve a patient's verbal articulations through various exercises so that he or she sounds as normal as possible when speaking. This specialist may also concentrate on the patient's chewing and swallowing ability, so that he or she can avoid choking and gagging on food and drink. The therapist attempts to achieve this by teaching the patient exercises and experimenting with different kinds of food textures to promote manipulation of the mouth and salivation, which ultimately improves digestion.

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Discussion Comments
By anon285221 — On Aug 14, 2012

Sounds a lot like a physical therapist or an occupational therapist.

By julies — On May 04, 2011

@mykol - I didn't know there was such a thing as a driving rehabilitation specialist. I wonder if insurance would cover something like that. I know the therapists mentioned in the article are usually covered by insurance which is a big help.

By Mykol — On May 02, 2011

In addition to those mentioned in the article, there are also driver rehabilitation specialists. They help people who may have a driving disability due to age, an accident or medical condition where their driving ability has been impaired.

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