Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a condition that causes severe and ongoing tiredness that is not improved by rest and does not result from another underlying disease. The exact cause of CFS is unknown, though theories include exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus or a disruption in the body’s immune system. Age, gender, exposure to prior illnesses, and stress are also thought to play a role.
In addition to fatigue, CFS symptoms can include sore throat, headache, low-grade fever, painful joints, memory or concentration problems, swollen glands, and generalized muscle weakness. CFS is also known as chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) and myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).
To win your claim for disability, you must prove to the Social Security Administration (SSA) that the symptoms of your CFS prevent you from working. Because CFS is not a condition that qualifies you for automatic approval of disability benefits, the SSA will consider your documented symptoms to determine if you can still perform your past work. If the agency feels you should still be able to do your old job, your claim will be denied. However, if the SSA agrees that you can’t do your old job anymore, the agency will next determine if there is any other work you could do.
To make this determination, the SSA will use the medical evidence you have provided in support of your claim to prepare a Residual Functional Capacity assessment (RFC). An RFC is a detailed report that discusses how your illness affects your ability to do certain job-related activities.
The SSA refers, in part, to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to evaluate CFS. The CDS defines CFS as persistent fatigue that has a definite date of onset, has no other mental or physical cause, is not alleviated by rest or sleep, and substantially interferes with work, school, social, or personal activities. The diagnosis also requires that you experience at least four of the following symptoms for at least six months:
Your medical records must contain documentation that satisfies the above criteria for a diagnosis of CFS and that shows these symptoms did not begin before the onset of your chronic fatigue.
To help the SSA develop an accurate RFC, you need to provide them with your medical records that date back to when the symptoms of your CFS first began. These records should include all lab test results, hospitalizations, doctor visits and reports, and a complete list of medications and their side effects. In particular, the SSA has listed the following as examples of supportive objective medical evidence important in CFS claims, particularly if they are documented over a half a year or more.
CFS can be a difficult disease to document clinically, as medical tests and laboratory results do not always reflect the degree of the illness. Therefore, it is important to understand that the SSA will not approve a disability claim based on the description of symptoms alone, though how symptoms affect your daily life is considered in the decision.
In light of your documented symptoms, the SSA may develop an RFC for you that states, for example, that due to persistent fatigue you need to take frequent breaks throughout the day to rest as needed. Because most employers would not accommodate this limitation, it would be difficult for you to perform most jobs.
If you suffer from documented muscle pain and weakness, your RFC may include limitations on certain work-related physical activities as well. For example, the RFC may state that you cannot lift or carry objects that weigh more than 10 pounds. This limitation would prevent you from doing jobs that required physical exertion, such as some factory work, warehouse work, and most janitorial positions.
Mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, is often associated with CFS. If you are seeing a therapist or psychologist for treatment of a mental illness, you should report this to the SSA and provide them with the treatment notes from your provider. The SSA will use the records to prepare a mental RFC that addresses your ability to perform the mental tasks required for work. For example, if you suffer from severe anxiety or depression, you may have difficulty concentrating on your work or even showing up for work on a regular basis. Anxiety and depression can also interfere with the ability to interact with coworkers. The SSA will consider the severity of these symptoms when determining their limiting effect on your ability to work.
CFS can also cause significant difficulties with memory, focus, and understanding and processing information. If you suffer from these symptoms, a mental RFC might state that you have significant difficulty following basic instructions or are unable to complete tasks in an acceptable amount of time. According to the SSA, limitations that cause a 20% reduction in your productivity (or more) would prevent any employment at all. (For more information, see our article on qualifying for disability due to reduced productivity.)
You should ask your treating physician, including your psychiatrist or psychologist, to fill out an RFC form that details their opinions of your work-related limitations. Although the SSA must consider the opinions of your doctors, they will assign them weight only they are supported by objective medical evidence.
For more information, see our section on how the SSA analyzes your RFC.
In addition to the medical finding that you are unable to work, above, you must not be earning $1,170 per month from working, and your illness must prevent you from working for at least a year. In addition, if you're applying for SSDI, you must have worked long enough for employers who pay taxes to the SSA. For more information, see SSDI requirements.
If you're applying for SSI, you don't need a qualifying work history, but you do need to be of limited means -- you must meet the SSA’s low income and asset tests. For more information, see SSI requirements.