Back pain can be caused by many different spinal conditions, many of which happen normally with age. Chronic conditions causing back pain include degenerative discs (created by wear and tear, or osteoarthritis); inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, arachnoiditis, and spondylitis; and problems involving the nerves in the back: spinal stenosis, nerve root compression, herniated discs, scoliosis, or spondylolisthesis.
You can visit the above links for specific discussions of getting disability for those conditions, but this article will focus on how Social Security views the symptom of pain and why your credibility is so important with back disability claims.
While back pain can be agonizing and frustrating, and sometimes incapacitating (especially lumbar pain), Social Security does not hand out SSDI or SSI disability benefits readily for back pain.
To qualify disability benefits, Social Security requires you to have a “medically determinable” impairment that lasts for at least one year. This means that x-rays, MRIs, or at least your doctor's notes after a physical examination must show that your back pain is caused by some physical abnormality of the spine or spinal canal. If you have back pain without a physical impairment that normally produces pain symptoms like yours, you're unlikely to win disability benefits.
(But note that back pain caused by obvious injuries like muscle strains and fractures usually heal within a few weeks or months, so won't qualify for Social Security disability or SSI.)
Social Security sees many, many disability claims for back pain, but only approves a few of the most severe cases; Social Security expects most others to be able to work through their back pain. So Social Security's job is to determine which claims for back pain are the most serious. The agency does this by looking at:
Your credibility -- whether the claims examiner and/or administrative law judge believes your pain is as bad as you say it is – is key in chronic pain cases. To evaluate your credibility, Social Security will consider some or all of the following factors (in addition to whether your objective test results support your pain complaints):
If you say you have extreme back pain but your objective test results don't indicate that your pain should be so severe, Social Security might ask you to see a psychiatrist for a consultative exam.