The 4 Stages of Orthopedic Rehabilitation: What to Expect


After surgery or an acute musculoskeletal injury, your next step is orthopedic rehabilitation to regain the full functionality of your body. While it may seem challenging at first to go through an extended recovery period with physical therapy, you’ll soon realize the benefits of such a program as you progress.

Orthopedic rehabilitation helps patients recover after joint replacement surgery. But it doesn’t just come into play after an orthopedic operation. People suffering from chronic orthopedic conditions such as arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome benefit from this specific type of rehab as well. Ligament tears in the knee or broken bones can also be made new again with orthopedic rehabilitation. Although restoring mobility is the main goal of rehab, it can also help manage pain, making the therapy easier. 

If you’re just starting out on your recovery, take note of these four distinct stages of orthopedic rehabilitation along the way.

The four stages of orthopedic rehabilitation

The type and severity of your injury or condition will dictate your rehab program. Your orthopedist and physical therapist will design a customized program for your specific needs. They will prescribe exercises and other therapies to get you back to where you were before the injury, or as close to it as possible. To get there, you’ll pass through the four stages of orthopedic rehabilitation:

Recovering. At this point, you’ve recently suffered an acute injury or have gone through surgery. The goal at this stage is to gradually and gently restore the range of motion with passive, physical therapist-assisted exercises. It may include devices such as slings, casts, and crutches to keep pressure off the affected limb or joint as you recuperate. Pain management with medications or hot/cold therapy may also be prescribed. Once the pain and swelling have subsided and you can move a bit better, you can advance to the next stage.

Healing. This stage focuses on improving your range of motion and healing your damaged tissues. Under the guidance of your physical therapist, you’ll do active yet gentle exercises to repair the injury or affected joint while not aggravating the pain. By this time, your soreness will have decreased to a manageable level to enable you to complete the physical therapy without discomfort. Flexibility exercises are also recommended. You may use lighter weights at this time but should steer clear of strenuous weight training. You’ll need to progress to the third stage of orthopedic rehabilitation for that to happen.

Strengthening. Once your mobility is nearly fully restored, your next step is to build up muscles that may have atrophied during your recovery. Your physical therapist may incorporate strengthening exercises and weight training to restore muscular strength and cardiovascular stamina. Although at this stage you’ll be pushed further, your physical therapist will make sure you don’t re-injure yourself so you can move to the fourth and final stage.

Functioning. The final stage of orthopedic rehabilitation sees you functioning as you did prior to the injury or surgery. That will mean different things to different people. For example, an athlete will return to their sport at full strength, while the average person will simply go about their daily tasks without pain or restriction. Your physical therapist may work with you to refine your coordination, balance, and agility. Restoring function also means taking measures to prevent another injury and going through orthopedic rehabilitation again!

See the rehab specialists

As a leading center for sports medicine, the physicians and physical therapists at New York Bone & Joint Specialists will design an orthopedic rehabilitation program just for you. Our goal is to help you overcome your injury and pain so you can get back to your life. Contact us for a consultation.

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