The nature of rehabilitation medicine is outlined in terms of its objectives, its methods, the patient groups which it seeks to help and its relationships to other specialties. Some major advances of recent years are discussed, such as the development of the impairment/disability/handicap framework. With particular emphasis upon neurological rehabilitation, the breadth of the specialty is then illustrated with examples of current preoccupations. These include recovery patterns of the damaged nervous system, testing the efficacy of existing therapies, applying new treatment techniques and developing quantitative measures of disability and handicap. Looking to the future, some key areas are identified where further advances might be sought.