Can You Get Disability for Epilepsy?

If you have severe and frequent epileptic seizures that interfere with your daytime activities, you may be able to get disability benefits.

By , Contributing Author | Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney
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Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which surges of electrical activity in the brain cause recurring, unprovoked seizures. Epilepsy can result from another condition, such as cerebral palsy or strokes, but doctors don't always know what causes epilepsy. Seizure symptoms can range from mild (short staring spells) to immobilizing (convulsions and loss of consciousness). The frequency of seizures can vary, but doctors need evidence of at least two unprovoked (spontaneous) seizures in order to diagnose epilepsy.

Epilepsy is primarily treated with medications. For most epilepsy patients, medications are successful in reducing the occurrence of seizures to the point where patients can, with some precautions, lead normal lives. But even mild seizures can be dangerous if they happen at certain times, like while driving or operating machinery, and could limit your ability to perform work activities.

Is Epilepsy a Disability?

Adults with epilepsy might be eligible for Social Security disability benefits if their seizures have prevented them from working full-time for at least 12 months, though they will need to satisfy other requirements. After the Social Security Administration (SSA) finds that an applicant hasn't worked for a year, the agency will evaluate the epilepsy according to the type, frequency, duration, and nature of the seizures.

When you file for benefits, a claims examiner will review the evidence and determine whether you're eligible for benefits. The claims examiner will be looking for the following items in your records:

  • a diagnosis of epilepsy
  • a detailed description of your typical seizure, including all pre- and post-seizure symptoms
  • a statement from your doctor corroborating your account of the nature and frequency of your seizures
  • a description of your seizures from a third-party witness
  • a record indicating the frequency of your past seizures
  • results of an EEG, and
  • a detailed treatment history, including medications and other treatments that you've tried and your response to them.

Qualifying for Benefits Under the SSA's Official Listing for Epilepsy

You might be able to qualify as disabled without having to prove that you can't do any work. If your medical record contains evidence that your epileptic seizures are especially persistent and intense, the SSA will evaluate whether you qualify for benefits under its listing of impairments. If you meet the criteria for epilepsy in the listing, the SSA will find you have a "medical disability." The SSA will look at your medical records to determine whether you meet the criteria.

Epilepsy is one of the disorders in the listing of impairments. The SSA evaluates epilepsy under listing 11.02, for convulsive and nonconvulsive epilepsy. The criteria you need to meet to qualify under listing 11.02 depends on the type and frequency of your seizures, as explained in more detail below.

Types of Seizures

Social Security recognizes two types of epileptic seizures that can be medically disabling.

  • Generalized tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures. These seizures are characterized by a stiffening of the muscles, often accompanied by a groan (as air is forced past the vocal cords), followed by a loss of consciousness as the arms and legs begin to jerk rapidly.
  • Dyscognitive seizures. These seizures don't involve muscle convulsions, but they do impair awareness and consciousness. Somebody experiencing a dyscognitive seizure might stare blankly, be unresponsive to questions, or engage in odd and uncoordinated behavior.

If, despite following your doctor's recommended treatment, you've been experiencing seizures once a month (for tonic-clonic) or once a week (for dyscognitive) for three months in a row, you will meet the criteria for a medical disability under the listings, and Social Security will find you disabled.

Frequency of Seizures

Your seizures might not occur like clockwork every week or month. But even if your seizures occur slightly less frequently, Social Security can find you medically disabled when you can show that you're having a lot of trouble in other areas of your life in between episodes.

You'll still have to show that you're having seizures at least every other month or every other week, depending on whether your seizures are tonic-clonic or dyscognitive. In addition, the SSA will want to see that you have a "marked" (very serious) limitation in one of the following areas:

  • physical functioning, such as standing, balancing, or using your arms and hands
  • understanding, remembering, or using information
  • interacting with others
  • concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace, or
  • controlling emotions and behavior.

The requirements are a bit different for children with epilepsy; see our article on disability for children with epilepsy for more information.

Qualifying Under Medical-Vocational Guidelines

If you don't quite meet one of the listings above (for example, you might get tonic-clonic seizures once a year), you could still be eligible for benefits if the symptoms of your epilepsy interfere with your activities to such an extent that there are no jobs that you could safely and consistently perform.

Factors Social Security Will Consider

When determining whether you qualify, the examiner reviewing your claim will not only analyze your medical condition and symptoms, but will also consider other factors, including:

Social Security doesn't expect you to perform a job where you would be at risk of injury (or you'd pose a risk to others) if you had an unexpected seizure. The risks of injury are greater at jobs where you'd be working around hazards such as heavy machinery or dangerous chemicals.

How Social Security Decides What Types of Jobs You Can Do

The SSA will take seizure risks into account when assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is the agency's assessment of what you can do despite your restrictions, put into terms that an employer (or vocational expert) would understand.

If your application shows evidence of epilepsy, your RFC will usually include certain seizure precautions, such as avoiding heights and moving machinery. Depending on your vocational factors, including how old you are and what work you've done in the past, having seizure precautions might be sufficient for Social Security to find you disabled.

For people under the age of 50, seizure precautions by themselves aren't usually enough to make you disabled. The SSA can usually find enough sit-down jobs you can do that don't pose a significant risk of injury in case of a seizure. But the SSA will still find you disabled when you have additional limitations, physical or mental, that prevent you from doing even the least demanding types of work.

Having additional conditions that negatively affect your ability to work increases the likelihood of your application being improved. So does having a treating doctor who's supportive of your claim and willing to provide a comprehensive statement or fill out a questionnaire regarding your inability to work.

For more information, read our tips on how to get disability for epileptic seizures.

Updated May 31, 2022

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