Disability Benefits for a Bulging or Herniated Disc
If your disc is pressing on a nerve or prevents you from stooping or bending, you may be able to get Social Security disability benefits.
A bulging disc or herniated disc (also known as a ruptured disc) is the result of pressure upon a intervertebral disc that results in a protrusion from the disc. A bulging or herniated disc can be the result of injury, wear and tear upon the spine from natural aging, or degenerative disc disease.
Treatment for Herniated or Bulging Discs
Treatment of bulging and herniated discs might include physical therapy, non-steroidal pain medications, oral steroids, or even epidural injections in an effort to relieve pressure on the disc and reduce pain. Spinal surgery can also repair some herniated discs.
People with a herniated or bulging disc often suffer from debilitating pain in the back and hips, either temporarily or chronically. In severe cases, a bulging disc can cause muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness and tingling.
Disability Benefits for Herniated or Bulging Discs
First, to be considered for Social Security disability benefits, your disability must have lasted, or be expected to last, at least one year. Many herniated or bulging discs either resolve themselves within a year, or are repaired by surgery such as spinal fusion or laminectomy or discectomy, so this requirement can be tough to meet. (The SSA generally allots 90 to 120 days for recovery from back surgery in most cases, except for unusual situations.)
Second, the SSA requires either that your back injury is so severe that you meet the requirements of its disability "listing" on spinal disorders or that because of your age, education, and prior job skills, combined with your functional limitations, you can't be expected to do your prior work or any job.
Official Impairment Listing for Spinal Disorders
Social Security mentions "herniated nucleus pulposus," another word for herniated disc, as a disorder that frequently causes the impingement of a nerve root. To officially match the SSA's listing for spinal disorders, your herniated or bulging disc must cause one of the following provable back problems:
- nerve root compression (pressure on spinal nerves from the bulging disc)
- stenosis (narrowing of the spine), or
- arachnoiditis (inflammation of a membrane surrounding the spinal cord).
Assuming you haven't been diagnosed with arachnoiditis or stenosis in addition to a herniated or bulging disc, you would have to show that your herniated disc is causing serious nerve root compression. In addition to proving that you have nerve root compression (for example, by having a positive result on the straight-leg-raising test, or SLR), you won't get disability benefits unless you can also prove that your range of motion is limited, your reflexes or sensation have decreased, and that you have muscle weakness.
Medical-Vocational Allowance for Herniated Disc
Most patients suffering from a herniated disc don’t have the nerve compression problems required by the spinal disorders listing (or stenosis or arachnoiditis), as laid out above, so they won’t qualify under this listing. However, you might be able to qualify if your functional limitations (for example, you can't bend, crouch, or lift anything above 15 pounds) don't allow you to do your former job. In addition, your limitations combined with your age and education must mean that you can't safely adjust to less demanding work either. In that case, you could be granted a medical-vocational allowance to qualify for disability benefits. If you are over 50, you have a better chance of winning a medical-vocational allowance. For more information, see our article on medical-vocational allowances for back conditions.
Appealing a Denial of Benefits
Many people who apply for disability based on herniated disc get denied on the first application, and need to appeal to get a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. Your chances of winning at a hearing are increased if you're represented by a disability lawyer. Lawyers know a lot of strategies for winning disability claims, and can make sure that you get a fair chance in front of a judge. For information on being represented, including how lawyer fees work for disability cases, see our section on being represented by a disability lawyer.