Getting Disability for Transverse Myelitis

Those with long-lasting limitations from transverse myelitis may be able to qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Updated February 28, 2017

Transverse myelitis (TM) is inflammation of the tissue (called myelin) that surrounds nerve cell fibers around the spinal cord. TM can cause pain and muscle weakness, and severe cases can result in incontinence and paralysis of the legs. There is no cure for TM, but anti-inflammatory drugs can relieve some symptoms. It is common for people with TM to see an improvement in their symptoms, and some recover fully.

Doctors do not always know what causes an individual case of TM. In some cases, the disorder is caused by an infection. In about half of people with TM, the disease is associated with immune disorders like multiple sclerosis, lupus, and Sjogren’s syndrome.

Individuals with severe cases of TM may qualify for Social Security disability. In order to meet Social Security’s definition of disability, the disabling condition must have lasted or be expected to last at least one year. TM typically lasts less than one year, although some individuals will never fully recover and will continue to have disabling symptoms after a year. Individuals whose doctors expect them to recover in less than one year (and who have no other disabling conditions) will not qualify for Social Security disability.

Meeting a Disability Listing With Transverse Myelitis

Social Security does not have a specific disability listing for transverse myelitis. The closest listing is that for “spinal cord or nerve root lesions,” listing 11.08 in the neurological disorders section of Social Security's blue book. To qualify for disability under listing 11.08, you must have either:

  • Complete loss of function of a body part, such as arms or legs, lasting for at least 3 months. (Loss of function applies not only to paralysis, but any other normal function like sensation, or loss of function of the autonomic nervous system that affects bladder or intestinal function.) 

OR

  • Extreme difficulty standing up from a seated position, balancing while standing or walking, or using the upper extremities.

OR

  • Marked physical problems along with a serious limitation in thinking, social interactions, concentrating on and finishing tasks, or regulating emotions and controling behavior. (Marked means worse than moderate, but not extreme.) 

TM patients whose doctors have linked their TM to another disorder may be able to meet a medical listing for the associated disorder. For more information about how claimants can qualify for Social Security by meeting the listings for specific neurological or immune system disorders, see articles on multiple sclerosislupus, and Sjogren’s syndrome. Ask your treating doctor what condition yours is most similar to.

Residual Functional Capacity

If Social Security finds that your TM does not meet or equal a listing, then the agency will look at your residual functional capacity (RFC). A DDS medical consultant will evaluate your physical and sensory residual functional capacities using a physical RFC form. Although Social Security will not give you the form, you can see what Social Security's RFC form looks like.

The RFC form looks at your ability to sit, stand, lift, push, pull, use your hands, see, hear, and speak. People with TM may experience difficulty walking or standing, and numbness in their arms, legs, or hands. It can be very helpful to your claim to have your treating physician complete an RFC questionnaire to document these symptoms and to describe how they limit your functioning. You can print our free RFC form to give to your doctor.

First Social Security will decide whether you can do your prior job with your RFC. If not, the agency will determine whether there are other jobs you can do.

If your RFC shows that you don't have the capacity for even sedentary work, you will be found disabled. But if you are able to do at least sedentary, light, or medium work, Social Security will look at your RFC level along with your age, education level, and type of past work to see whether you can be be expected to adjust to other work. These factors are laid out in tables that Social Security calls the “grids.” For more information about how Social Security uses the grids for claimants of different ages, see our series of articles on the disability grids.

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