Lymphedema is swelling of the arms or legs that occurs when vessels in your lymphatic system are blocked, preventing the draining of lymph fluid. Lymphedema is usually caused by a condition or procedure that has damaged your lymphatic system, such as surgery on lymph nodes, cancer, radiation treatment for cancer, or repeated infections, including parasitic infections. Removal of lymph nodes from the underarm area following breast cancer is one of the most common causes. (Another type, primary lymphedema, is quite rare and is an inherited condition that is caused by the abnormal development of lymph vessels.)
The swelling caused by lymphedema can be very mild and hardly noticeable or it can be quite painful and make it difficult or even impossible to use the swollen limb.
If I Have Lymphedema, Can I Qualify for Disability Benefits?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) publishes a listing of medical impairments that qualify for disability benefits if you meet the specified criteria. Even though lymphedema is not one of the listed impairments, that doesn’t mean if you have lymphedema you can’t still qualify for disability. There are three ways you may be able to qualify for disability for lymphedema.
"Equaling" a Disability Listing
If you have lymphedema and it could be considered "medically equal" in severity to one of SSA's listed impairments, the SSA may find you eligible for disability. Two of the more common listings to which lymphedema may be found medically equal are below.
Chronic Venous Insufficiency
People who suffer from lymphedema may have symptoms that could be medically equal in severity to "chronic venous insufficiency." Venous insufficiency occurs when veins are blocked or damaged and blood builds up in the veins. When blood pools in the legs, it can make walking painful and difficult.
This is somewhat similar to what happens in lymphedema, when your lymphatic channels are blocked and lymph fluid builds up. In order for your symptoms to be found equal in severity to this listing, you should be able to show that the lymphedema occurs in your leg and results in excessive brawny edema (that is a particular kind of swelling) that occurs over the majority of your leg. For more information, see our article on disability and CVI.
Major Dysfunction of a Joint
Although lymphedema occurs in your lymphatic system and not in your joints, it can cause limited motion in the joints. However, even with joint problems, if you have trouble using your arms or legs, your lymphedema could be found medically equivalent to the listing for joint dysfunction.
Specifically, if you have lymphedema in your legs and it makes it difficult to walk, or if you have lymphedema in your arms and it results in an inability to use your hands effectively, your lymphedema may be found to medically equal the "Major Dysfunction of a Joint listing." For more information, see our article on disability and joint problems.
Your lymphedema symptoms may be medically equivalent to other listings as well, depending on the body part affected. An experienced disability lawyer will know which listings your condition could be equal to and can help you prove your lymphedema symptoms are equivalent to the listing.
Meeting a Disability Listing for Cancer
If you don’t equal any listings based solely on your lymphedema, you may be able to get disability if you suffer from secondary lymphedema caused by cancer or cancer treatment. Visit our cancer disability section to see whether your cancer qualifies for disability.
Qualifying for Disability Based on Functional Limitations
If you suffer from lymphedema but don’t qualify for disability by meeting or equaling a listing, you may still be eligible for a “medical-vocational allowance.” This approval of benefits is based on a combination of the limitations of your symptoms, your past job skills, your education, and your age.
To determine whether you qualify for a medical-vocational allowance, the SSA will first assess your "residual functional capacity" (RFC) to determine if you still have some capacity to work. Your RFC assessment will state the functional limitations caused by your lymphedema, such as the inability to walk or stand more than one hour at a time.
If you have lymphedema in your legs, your RFC assessment may restrict the kinds of work you can do that involve standing or sitting for long periods of time, walking, kneeling, or remaining in one position for certain periods of time. If you have lymphedema in your arms, your RFC assessment may limit the kinds of work you can do that involve writing or typing, pushing, grasping, or anything else that requires fine movements in your arms or hands.
Then the SSA will look at your past job requirements to determine if someone with your limitations could do the job. If not, the SSA will try to find other jobs that you could do within your limitations, that you could either transfer prior job skills to or learn new skills to do (unless you are over a certain age--then the SSA doesn't expect you to learn a new job). If the SSA decides that you are so limited by your impairment that there is no work you can perform, you will be found eligible for disability based on the medical-vocational allowance. Learn more about medical-vocational allowances.