Getting Social Security Disability or SSI for Emphysema

Social Security evaluates emphysema under its listing for chronic pulmonary insufficiency.

Emphysema is a chronic lung disease involving the deterioration of alveoli, tiny sacs that allow the lungs to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide. As emphysema progresses in a patient, and more lung tissue is destroyed, a person's breathing ability is further impaired. Emphysema is most commonly caused by smoking. The symptoms of emphysema include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, fatigue, and frequent lung infections.

Treatment of Emphysema

Emphysema is a chronic progressively degenerative lung disease that cannot be cured. However, the progress of the disease may be slowed dramatically with cessation of smoking and avoiding other lung irritants. The most common medical treatment for emphysema is medication that helps with breathing, such as steroids, inhalers, and supplemental oxygen.

Lung volume reduction surgery, which removes diseased portions of the patient's lungs, can improve a patient's breathing. In 2006, a promising surgical procedure that places valves in lung passages that lead to areas affected with emphysema was announced. However, this is a new procedure, and a small percentage of patients who have had the surgery experienced a collapsed lung. 

The only known successful cure for emphysema is a lung transplant, but very few patients with emphysema are healthy enough to survive the surgery. (For those patients who do receive a lung transplant, Social Security disability benefits are automatically granted for at least a period of one year.)

Getting Disability Benefits for Emphysema

The Social Security Administration will grant benefits for emphysema if lung function tests show that the applicant's breathing is so impaired that the person cannot be expected to work. Emphysema is evaluated under the same disability listing as other forms of COPD, the listing for chronic pulmonary insufficiency. For more information, see our article on disability benefits for COPD.

Unfortunately, not every claimant with emphysema will meet the requirements of the pulmonary insufficiency listing and be approved for disability benefits. Some patients with this condition will be forced to go through the disability appeal system after being denied on their initial application. The usual reason for being denied when you have a diagnosis of emphysema is that your breaking test results do not show a sufficient impairment. On appeal, you may be able to prove that, with the restrictions your doctor has placed on your activities, there is no work you can be expected to do. Winning disability by showing your limitations is also discussed in our article on disability benefits for COPD.

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