People who suffer from restless leg syndrome (RLS) feel odd sensations in their arms or legs and have uncontrollable urges to move to relieve the feelings. RLS is a neurological disorder that has been linked to various other medical problems, including iron deficiency, ADHD, auto-immune disorders, high blood pressure, and varicose veins. In some people, restless leg syndrome worsens over time, while others experience remissions from the disorder. Severe RLS can cause pain, weakness, incontinence, and paralysis of the legs. In addition, the drugs used to treat RLS can cause severe side effects.
Whether you can get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or SSI disability benefits for a syndrome like restless leg syndrome depends on several pieces of the disability determination process.
Severe Medically Determinable Impairment
In order to qualify for disability, you must have what Social Security calls a severe “medically determinable impairment,” or an impairment that can be diagnosed according to established criteria. However, there is no medical test for restless leg syndrome. Instead, a treating physician will use a list of recognized symptoms to diagnose RLS. The criteria include the following.
- Irresistible urges to move the legs and/or arms are experienced at night or during periods of rest.
- Pain, pricking, or numbness often accompanies the urge to move.
- Symptoms are worse at night and usually not present during the day, and
- Moving the affected limbs brings temporary relief.
Some patients may also suffer from involuntary leg or arm movement during sleep, and doctors may use that as a basis for diagnosing RLS.
Only claimants who have severe cases of RLS have a chance of qualifying for Social Security disability. Claimants with moderate or intermittent cases of RLS will not be able to meet Social Security’s requirement that the disabling condition must significantly limit the person's ability to work for at least 12 months.
RLS and Social Security's Impairment Listings
When Social Security is evaluating a disability claim, it will look to see whether your impairment meets one of the impairments listed in its Blue Book. If Social Security finds that you do not meet a listed impairment, you can still argue that your condition equals a similar listing.
While RLS is considered a neurologic disorder and Social Security has a set of listings for neurologic disorders, Social Security does not have a listing for RLS, or even a listing for some impairment that RLS could be equivalent to.
Instead, if your only impairment is RLS, it is likely that Social Security will decide your disability case by looking at your "residual functional capacity" and considering whether your case merits a medical-vocational allowance. If you have other impairments, Social Security will consider the symptoms caused by your RLS when deciding whether you equal a listing for another impairment.
RLS and Residual Functional Capacity
After Social Security finds that your RLS does not meet or equal the requirements of a listing, then it will look at your residual functional capacity (RFC) to see whether you are disabled. RFC is the remaining physical and mental capacity that you have, after considering the limitations caused by your impairments.
Social Security will consider whether your RFC will allow you to do your past work or another type of work. Obviously, if your RLS does not cause any symptoms that carry over into the daytime, your RFC won't show any limitations and you will not qualify for disability, because Social Security will find that you can work. But if your RLS is severe enough that it causes daytime symptoms like incontinence, paralysis, or the inability to stay awake, then your RFC would state how your capacity to work is affected by these symptoms, and you may qualify for disability. Social Security will also consider how the side effects of any medication you take affect your ability to work.
In general, claimants who are older and have less education and less work history will find it easier to qualify for disability than others because of the way Social Security's grid rules work. (For more information, see our article on how the grids rules work for different ages.) On the other hand, if you have completed high school and have job skills that you could transfer to another type of work, then you will need to show Social Security that you are unable to perform even sedentary (sit-down) work. Incontinence, partial paralysis, and the inability to stay awake are symptoms that could help you show that you cannot perform sedentary work.
Still, it is very difficult to qualify for disability for restless leg syndrome alone, if you suffer from moderate to severe depression or anxiety, as many with restless leg syndrome do, you are more likely to get benefits. For more information, see our article on how moderate depression or anxiety affects a disability claim.