Can You Get Disability for Back Pain Without a Known Cause?

More back pain does not necessarily mean a more serious injury, but Social Security wants proof of physical damage or abnormality.

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Back pain is a symptom of back injury that can arise from many causes. The pain can range from a dull, annoying ache to absolute agony. Ironically, the severity of back pain is often unrelated to the extent of physical damage. Muscle spasm from a simple back strain can cause excruciating back pain that can make it difficult to walk or even stand, whereas a large herniated disc or completely degenerated disc can be completely painless.

Lower, or lumbar, back pain is the second most common illness-related reason given for a missed workday, and work-related back injury is the number one occupational hazard. Low back pain, generally as a result of degenerative disc disease, is the most prevalent cause of disability in people under age 45.  

Causes of Back Pain

The causes of back pain can be very complex, and there are many structures in the lower back that can cause back pain. The following conditions can cause pain:

  • The large nerve roots that go to the legs and arms may be irritated.
  • The smaller nerves that innervate the spine may be irritated.
  • The large paired back muscles (erector spinae) may be strained.
  • The bones, ligaments, or joints may be injured.
  • The intervertebral discs may be injured.

Many cases of back pain are caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine. Sedentary jobs and lifestyles may create a vulnerability to this type of stress or damage. Obesity, which increases both the weight on the spine and the pressure on the discs, is another factor. Strenuous sports such as football and gymnastics can also cause damage resulting in back pain.

Risk Factors for Back Pain

People with one or more of the following indications have a higher risk of developing back pain:

  • lack of exercise
  • obesity
  • bad posture
  • pregnancy
  • over age 30
  • smoking
  • stress
  • depression, and
  • work in construction or another job requiring heavy lifting, lots of bending and twisting, or whole body vibration (truck driving, sandblasting, etc.).

Qualifying for Disability Benefits Due to Back Pain

Many types of lower back pain have no known anatomical cause, but the pain is still real and needs to be treated. However, lower back pain can usually be linked to a general cause (such as muscle strain) or a specific and diagnosable condition (such as degenerative disc disease or a herniated disc).

To qualify for disability benefits because of back pain, you must have a specific diagnosis for what's causing the pain. If the doctor hasn't found any abnormal physical results after doing x-rays, MRIs, and lab tests, yet you still suffer from disabling pain, Social Security will not be able to consider you for disability benefits because of your back pain.

However, Social Security will consider pain caused by a properly documented mental disorder, such as somatoform pain disorder.

For more information, see our articles on how Social Security treats chronic pain and how Social Security evaluates common back problems.

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