Even if you have severe, documented back problems, it’s difficult to get approved for disability benefits by the Social Security Administration (SSA) under the SSA’s official impairment listing for spinal disorders. Fitting into the official impairment listing requires your condition to fit into a small box of symptoms and objective test results showing nerve root compression, arachnoiditis, or stenosis (for the details on the official listing, see our topic page on How to Get Disability Benefits For Back Problems).
If the SSA denies that you have a disability based on the spinal disorder listing, as the next part of the disability determination process, the SSA is required to consider the effect of your back pain and problems on your capacity to do daily activities and to function at work, and will then determine whether there is any kind of work you can do. The SSA will evaluate your treating doctor’s records and imaging tests, and in particular his or her notes on your functional limitations and restrictions, to determine if your back problems rise to the level of a disability that prevents you from working.
The SSA, with the help of a medical consultant, will review your doctor’s functional restrictions. (The most common doctors’ restrictions for back problems are to not lift heavy objects, bend over, or sit or stand for prolonged periods of time.) The SSA will give you a rating of the type of work it thinks you can do based on your restrictions (sedentary work, light work, medium work, or heavy work). This is called your residual functional capacity (RFC). For instance, if your doctor has limited your standing and walking to no more than four hours per day, your RFC will be for sedentary work. If your doctor has limited you to no lifting more than 20 pounds, but okays your standing or walking for six to eight hours per day, your RFC will be for light work. If your doctor has limited you to occasional bending only, your RFC will likely be for light work. If you can carry up to 50 pounds for up to one-third of the day, and up to 25 pounds for up to two-thirds of a day, your RFC will be for medium work.
Most Social Security disability claimants who apply for back problems are assigned an RFC for light or medium work. You are likely to receive an RFC for light work, or medium work at the most, if you have any of the following symptoms: