Getting Social Security Disability for Syringomyelia

Patients suffering limitations in functioning due to advanced syringomyelia may be able to get disability benefits.

Syringomyelia is a condition where fluid-filled cysts form within the spinal cord. As the cysts grow, they can damage the spinal cord, which leads to impairments. This condition can be caused by birth defects, injuries to the spinal cord, and tumors in the spinal cord. If the condition causes limitations that prevent you from working, you may be eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Disabling Symptoms of Syringomyelia

Syringomyelia does not always cause symptoms. But symptoms usually develop over time. Initially, symptoms generally begin in the back of the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands and can include:

  • pain that radiates down the arms or legs
  • neck pain
  • muscle weakness or loss of muscle in arms or legs
  • tightness or spasms in the arm or leg muscles
  • loss of reflexes
  • numbness or decreased feeling in the skin
  • decreased sensitivity to pain or temperatures
  • headache
  • decrease in coordination
  • bowel and bladder issues, and
  • facial pain or numbness.

Treatments that are available for syringomyelia usually include surgery. With surgery, the impairments can be stopped from getting worse or even show improvement (which occurs with about half of patients). If you do not get treatment, syringomyelia will get progressively worse and can lead to the following complications:

  • loss of nervous system function
  • scoliosis (curving of the spine)
  • Homer syndrome, which causes drooping eyelid and constricted pupils
  • chronic pain
  • difficulty walking, and
  • decreased functioning of the arms or hands.

If individuals do have impairments that prevent them from working, they can qualify for SSDI or SSI in two ways: (1) meeting a disability listing or (2) having limitations that make then unable to work any job.

Meeting a Disability Listing

To meet a listing, an individual must show that they have all of the requirements of a disability listing from the Social Security “blue book,” which contains medical conditions that are severe enough to automatically qualify for disability benefits. There is a specific listing that addresses syringomyelia. To meet this listing, you must have one of the following:

Significant bulbar signs. The bulbar muscles run from the brain stem and control your ability to swallow, breathe, speak, and perform other functions involving the throat. Bulbar signs include impairments with those muscles. It is not necessary for you to have significant impairments in all areas that are controlled by the bulbar muscles; Social Security will look at a combination of minor bulbar signs when considering if you meet this requirement.

Interference with your ability to walk or use your arms, hands, and fingers. The interference must be due to impairment in at least two of your extremities and can be caused by impairments such as paralysis, tremors or involuntary movements, or sensory impairments. The interferences must cause sustained impairments with walking or using your arms, hands, and fingers that significantly impact your ability to function.

Inability to Work

If you do not meet the syringomyelia listing but are unable to work, you may qualify for disability benefits. In order to do this, you must show that your limitations are so great that there is no job you can do. Social Security will assess the work you can do by considering your limitations, age, education level, and work experience.

For physical impairments, Social Security will look at your ability to do physically demanding activities (exertional activity) in the work place, as well as other skills that require physical abilities (nonexertional activity); for example, your ability to pull, push, lift, or carry objects and your ability to do things with your hands and fingers, such as filing. Your ability to walk, sit, and stand for any amount of time will also be considered in your physical abilities.

For those with syringomyelia, the decrease in muscle tone and coordination, along with the loss of function in the arms, legs, or fingers, can all significantly decrease an individual’s ability to do both exertional and nonexertional physical activities. Pain can also further limit their ability to perform tasks.

It should be noted that individuals who have lost the functional use of their legs due to syringomyelia will not automatically qualify for disability services (even if the individual needs to use a wheelchair). An individual must be deemed to not be able to do any work because of the loss of function in order to qualify for disability benefits.

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