Social Security Disability Claims for COPD

Social Security has a disability listing for COPD, but claimants will need to take a test showing restricted airflow through the lungs.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a general term for several lung diseases, mainly chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These diseases are characterized by obstructed airflow through the airways in and out of the lungs. Both cause excessive inflammatory processes that eventually lead to abnormalities in lung structure and limited airflow. Both are progressive conditions that worsen over time.

The primary cause of COPD is cigarette smoking. A small percentage of COPD sufferers have alpha-1-antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, also called familial emphysema. Air pollution and occupational dusts may also contribute to COPD, especially if the person exposed to these substances is a smoker. In addition, a recent study shows that adults with asthma are 12 times more likely to develop COPD than those who do not have the condition.

COPD symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. In addition, COPD adds to the work of the heart, and can cause pulmonary heart disease, or cor pulmonale. Treatment for COPD can include oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, and various medications.

Getting Disability Benefits for COPD

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has an official disability listing for COPD. If you meet the requirements of this listing, you automatically qualify for benefits. If your condition isn't severe enough to meet the requirements of the official listing, you may still be able to prove that your COPD reduces your capacity to breathe and exert yourself so much that you can't work at any type of job.

Disability Listing for COPD

To qualify for benefits, you must be diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In addition, a lung function test performed by a consulting doctor hired by the SSA must show very limited airflow. Specifically, a spirometry test documenting your FEV1 value (your forced expiratory volume in one second, meaning the amount of air you can exhale in one second), must be lower than the amount below. (Height is measured without shoes.)

Height

FEV1(liters)

Up to 5'

1.05

5'1"-5'3"

1.15

5'4"-5'5"

1.25

5'6"-5'7"

1.35

5'8"-5'9"

1.45

5'10"-5'11"

1.55

6' and over

1.65

Alternatively, if you don't have a problem getting air in or out of your lungs (your FEV1 value was too high), but your lungs have a problem oxygenating your blood, you can qualify for benefits with a poor DLCO (diffusing capacity of the lung for carbon monoxide) score or ABG (arterial blood gas values of oxygen and carbon dioxide) test score. Your DLCO score must be less than 10.5 ml/min/mm Hg or less than 40% of the predicted normal value for your race. Or, your ABG test values must be lower than the values below (at rest or exercising). PCO2 is the amount of dissolved carbon dioxide in the blood; PO2 is the amount of dissolved oxygen in the blood.

Arterial PCO(mm Hg) 

Arterial POEqual to or Less than (mm Hg)

30 or below

65

31

64

32

63

33

62

34

61

35

60

36

59

37

58

38

57

39

56

40 or above

55

(The oxygen values for 6,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level are lower; for the details, see the SSA's impairment listing for chronic pulmonary insufficiency.) 

Reduced Capacity for Work

If your breathing test results are higher than the above listing requirements, you might still be able to qualify for disability benefits if you can show that your COPD has reduced your breathing capacity to such an extent that there are no jobs you can do, or at least no jobs that you know how to do, given your age, education, and experience.

To show that your breathing capacity and ability to exert yourself are so low that you can't work, you should ask your doctor to send the SSA a medical opinion on what kinds of activities you can and cannot do (such as lifting no more than 20 pounds, walking no more than one hour at a time, and no exposure to dust or fumes). The SSA will give you a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment stating the type of work you can do (sedentary work, light work, medium work, or heavy work) based on your breathing test results and your doctors’ restrictions. If your FEV1 value is almost as low as what's required for the official disability listing, above, you should be assigned a sedentary RFC, meaning that you can only do a desk job.

In that case, if the SSA determines that you can't do a desk job given your experience, your education, and your age (the older you are, the less likely it is that Social Security expects you to learn a new job), you'll be approved for disability benefits. For more information, see our section on how Social Security decides if you can work.

Having Multiple Medical Problems

The vast majority of patients with COPD have other serious medical problems as well. Many people with COPD suffer from coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, as well as mental issues such as depression. When you have multiple medical conditions that affect your ability to work, you have a better chance of getting benefits. For more information, see our article on combining medical impairments to get disability and how moderate depression or anxiety affects your disability claim

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