Can You Get Disability for Migraines?

Getting Social Security Disability benefits based on chronic migraines is difficult but not impossible.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Migraine headaches, or chronic migraines, are neurologically based headaches that often include symptoms like:

  • pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting, and
  • increased sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraines can range in severity from mild to debilitating and can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours (sometimes longer).

Although getting Social Security disability for migraines alone is still challenging, a recent ruling has given chronic migraine sufferers another way to qualify. Here's what you need to know about applying for disability for migraine headaches under the current rules.

Do Chronic Migraines Cause Disability?

Occasional migraines may be nothing more than an inconvenience, but those who experience regular, severe migraine headaches can find it very difficult to function on a daily basis. If you have chronic migraines, you might find that often you're able to do nothing more than stay in bed in a dark room for hours—or days—at a time.

Medications to treat migraines might not always be effective. Even when they offer some relief, medications can sometimes have serious side effects— like dizziness or drowsiness—that make it impossible for you to work.

Can You Qualify for Social Security Disability for Chronic Migraines?

If you suffer from chronic migraines, you can apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. To determine if your migraines are severe enough to qualify as a disability, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will consider two questions:

  • Do your chronic migraines equal a listing in Social Security's Blue Book?
  • If not, do your migraines interfere with your activities so much that there's no work you could safely and consistently do?

If Social Security finds the answer to either of these questions is yes, then you'll qualify medically for disability benefits. (Learn about the non-medical requirements for Social Security disability benefits.)

Social Security's Blue Book and Chronic Migraines

The surest way to prove your disability case is to meet the requirements of a listing in the Blue Book. If your chronic migraines are caused by another medical condition (like a traumatic brain injury), you'll need to meet the listing requirements for that condition.

Unfortunately, Social Security doesn't have a disability listing specifically for headache disorders like chronic migraines. But, you might still be able to show that your chronic migraines (alone or in combination with another impairment) equal a listing.

Equaling a Disability Listing

Thanks to a recent ruling, disability examiners can now consider migraines and other headache disorders (like cluster headaches) under the listing for epilepsy (11.02). To meet the listing, you must show that your chronic migraines limit your ability to function (and work) as much as the epilepsy listing for dyscognitive seizures (as described in paragraph B or paragraph D of the listing).

To meet the listing, you must be able to show that you're following your doctor's prescribed treatment, but that you still have migraines at least once a week for at least three consecutive months. Or you must show that even with medical treatment, your migraines occur at least once every two weeks for three consecutive months and cause you to be severely limited in at least one of the following areas:

  • physical functioning (such as standing or balancing)
  • understanding and using information
  • interacting with others, like co-workers and supervisors
  • concentrating on and completing tasks quickly, or
  • adapting to change or managing your emotions, and taking care of yourself.

How to Prove Your Migraines Are as Disabling as Seizures

Your case will be much stronger if your doctor writes an opinion (that's backed up by medical evidence) describing the frequency and severity of your migraines and stating that your chronic migraines are as disruptive and limiting as the seizures in the SSA's epilepsy listing. Still, it's not easy to get approved by equaling a listing. Your best bet in this situation is to hire a disability lawyer to help prove your condition equals the listing.

Getting a Medical-Vocational Allowance for Migraines

Even if you don't meet Social Security's epilepsy listing, you might still qualify as disabled based on a migraine diagnosis. Before Social Security can deny your disability application, the claims examiner must consider how your chronic migraines affect your ability to perform daily activities. The examiner must determine, given your condition and other factors, whether there's any kind of work you could do on a full-time basis.

How Do Chronic Migraines Limit Your Activities?

To win your disability case, you'll need to prove to Social Security that your migraines affect your ability to function to the point where you can't perform basic work activities on a regular basis. For Social Security to deem you unable to work, you must experience significant limitations in things like:

  • concentrating
  • understanding instructions
  • dealing with others
  • lifting objects, or
  • standing and walking for extended periods.

To establish your residual functional capacity, or RFC (the most you can do given your condition), you'll want to have your doctor complete the SSA's residual functional capacity assessment. And since chronic migraines can significantly impact your ability to think clearly, you should probably also have your doctor complete a mental RFC assessment form.

A Social Security examiner will consider how frequently your headaches occur and how often you'd need to miss work due to your migraines. It's a good idea to have your doctor complete a migraine disability assessment (MIDAS) to demonstrate how much your chronic migraines affect your daily life and your ability to work.

The claims examiner will also take into account any other conditions you have that further limit your ability to work (for example, if you have a shoulder injury that prevents you from lifting heavy items).

When you apply for disability, the claims examiner evaluates your ability to perform any type of full-time employment. You might be able to prove that you can't do your previous work due to your chronic migraines. But if the claims examiner determines that there's another type of work that you could perform despite having migraines, your disability claim will be denied.

Vocational Factors: How Social Security Decides If You Could Do Any Other Work

If Social Security agrees that you can't return to your previous work, they'll consider several "vocational factors." Those include:

  • your age
  • your education level, and
  • skills you learned at your past employment.

The SSA will weigh these factors in addition to the limitations caused by your chronic migraines to see whether you could learn to do some other kind of work. In general, it's easier to get approved for disability if:

  • you're over the age of 50
  • you have little education, and
  • you have a history of unskilled work.

Learn more about getting disability based on a medical-vocational allowance.

Medical Evidence Required for Disability Due to Migraines

To be approved for disability, it's critical that you've received regular treatment for your migraine headaches. This is true whether you believe you meet the requirements for a listing or you're seeking a medical-vocational allowance. Although Social Security will consider your reports of your symptoms, objective medical evidence will carry more weight.

Using Medical Records to Prove Your Migraine Diagnosis

Although there's no definitive test to diagnose migraines, Social Security will want to see a diagnosis in your medical records. Specifically, the claims examiner will need to see that your doctor has diagnosed you with "recurrent migraine headaches."

Migraines can often be diagnosed based on the patient's reporting of their symptoms and the presence of a family history of migraines. In addition, your doctor might have ordered additional tests—like an MRI or CAT scan—to rule out other reasons for your headaches.

The SSA will also be looking for things like the following in your medical file:

  • doctors' notes regarding the frequency and severity of your migraines
  • list of medications and other treatments tried, along with their outcomes and side effects, and
  • records from any ER visits or hospitalizations related to your migraines.

The SSA might also ask your doctor(s) to complete a report or questionnaire regarding your medical condition. In some cases, the claims examiner will also seek input from family members or friends who see you frequently.

Evidence of the Migraine Treatments You've Tried

Treatment for migraines usually includes pain medications, anti-nausea medications, and sometimes, medications taken regularly to reduce or prevent migraines. Sometimes doctors prescribe other drugs, such as beta-blockers or antidepressants, which can also help with migraine symptoms.

The SSA will want to know what treatments you've tried. The Social Security examiner won't find your disability claim credible if you haven't tried several different medications or therapies to treat your chronic migraine headaches.

In addition, if treatment can improve your migraines, you'll need evidence to show that you're complying with your doctor's recommended treatment (unless you have an acceptable reason for failing to comply with treatment).

Applying for Social Security Disability for Migraines

You can apply for Social Security disability benefits by visiting your local Social Security office, calling the SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778), or completing an online application.

When you apply for SSDI, you're automatically considered for SSI. But if you want to apply online for SSI disability benefits only, you'll need to file a different application.

Your local Social Security office will process your application no matter how you apply. Then, Social Security will send your file to your state's Disability Determination Services (DDS). A DDS claims examiner will analyze your file, further investigate your case, and eventually determine whether or not your disability claim is approved.

The claims examiner will request copies of your medical records directly from your provider(s). But it can help speed up the decision process if you submit any records that you have to your local SSA office or to the DDS office directly.

To investigate your claim, the examiner might also:

  • call you for a phone interview
  • send you additional reports to complete, or
  • ask you to go for a doctor's exam (at the SSA's expense).

You'll receive your disability decision by mail. In general, it takes three to four months to get an initial denial or award letter from Social Security.

If your claim is approved, your award letter will explain:

  • your monthly benefit amount
  • the amount of any back pay owed to you, and
  • when you can expect to receive your benefits.

If DDS denies your disability claim for migraine headaches, you can file an appeal. You're more likely to win your Social Security disability case on appeal than at the initial application stage. Hiring an experienced disability lawyer to help with your appeal improves your odds of winning even more.

Updated November 15, 2022

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