Classic Parkinson's disease (PD) is a degenerative brain disorder that primarily affects your movement in its early phases. Although resting tremors are a well-known sign of Parkinson's disease, PD can also produce problems like:
These symptoms can make it difficult or impossible for you to work. Parkinson's disease mainly affects older people (over 60). But younger people can develop PD—especially those whose brains have been damaged by infection or drugs. PD's motor problems are related to a decrease in dopamine production in the parts of the brain critical for smooth movements. But the underlying general disease is caused by an abnormal protein known as "alpha-synuclein."
Parkinson's disease starts with minor symptoms but progressively gets worse over a period of years. In the later stages of PD, dementia often becomes an additional problem as the degenerative process caused by alpha-synuclein spreads throughout the brain.
The signs and symptoms associated with PD are collectively known as Parkinsonian syndrome (PS). Classic Parkinson's disease causes most cases of PS, but other disorders can result in the same signs and symptoms. Other causes of PS symptoms include damage to the brain caused by:
Most cases of Parkinsonian syndrome are not reversible. And in the case of Parkinson's, the disease is progressive.
Medications can make some symptoms of Parkinson's disease manageable for a while. For instance, the movement problems you experience might be helped by drugs that replace dopamine (called "dopamine agonists," or DA).
But as the disease progresses, dopamine agonist medications tend to become less effective over time, and Parkinsonian syndrome symptoms return—because the real culprit is abnormal alpha-synuclein.
In some severe PD cases that no longer respond to drugs, patients' tremors have been helped by the placement of deep brain electrodes, but the procedure is highly invasive and not a cure. Until the formation of abnormal alpha-synuclein can be stopped, PD will remain incurable.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) considers the symptoms of Parkinson's disease severe enough to include in its Blue Book listing of impairments in the section on neurological disorders. But the SSA evaluates PD based on the limitations caused by the disease process rather than the diagnosis of the disease itself.
For Social Security to consider your PD a listed disability, your condition needs to meet the requirements of the listing for "Parkinsonian syndrome" (listing 11.06). But meeting a listing isn't the only way someone with Parkinson's disease can qualify as disabled. Social Security will also consider your Parkinson's disabling if it interferes with your ability to function so much that you can't work full-time in any kind of job.
If you're an adult diagnosed with any kind of parkinsonism (including Parkinson's disease) and your symptoms are severe enough to prevent you from working, you should qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
To qualify for benefits under listing 11.06, you'll need medical records that document one of the following:
Note that "marked" means worse than moderate but less than extreme.
If your Parkinson's symptoms don't meet the guidelines in the above listing, you could still potentially qualify for benefits under Social Security's "medical-vocational" rules. To qualify for disability benefits under the medical-vocational rules, you must show that your condition is severe enough to significantly limit your ability to perform basic work-related activities.
A doctor working for the Social Security Administration (SSA) will review your medical records, including:
The doctor will create a physical residual functional capacity (RFC) for you. Your RFC is a classification of the kind of work that Social Security feels you can perform given your medical condition and limitations (such as sedentary, light, or heavy work.)
If your Parkinson's disease has also caused mental or cognitive issues, you'll receive a mental RFC as well. And in determining your RFC, the SSA will consider any other physical or mental conditions you have that limit your ability to work, whether related to your PD or not.
A claims examiner who works for Social Security will then determine if you can return to your past work with your RFC. If not, the examiner, perhaps with the help of a vocational analyst, will decide if there are any other jobs that you would be able to do. If the examiner finds that there are still jobs that you could do, you won't qualify for disability.
If you're over 50, you have a better chance of being approved for benefits because of Social Security's "grid rules." The examiner will consider your age, level of education, and prior work experience to determine whether you have the ability or job skills to switch to another type of work. Having little formal education and a history of unskilled work can increase the odds that your application will be approved under the grid rules. Learn more about how you might qualify for disability based on the grid rules.
If Social Security determines that your Parkinson's disease meets the Parkinson's listing requirements or makes you unable to work in any kind of job, you can get disability benefits. The SSA administers two programs that benefit disabled people:
SSDI benefits are for workers who've paid Social Security tax (FICA) or self-employment tax before becoming disabled. If you have PD and you've been working long enough to earn a sufficient number of work credits, you should qualify for SSDI.
SSI disability benefits help people with low incomes who've never worked or who haven't earned enough work credits to qualify for SSDI. As such, you must meet certain income and resource limits to qualify for SSI. Your monthly income must be less than $861 (or $1,281 for a couple), and you can't have more than $2,000 in assets (or $3,000 for a couple).
If you're a Parkinson's patient, other government assistance might be available for you. For instance, if you qualify for Social Security disability, you'll probably also qualify for medical benefits. But the specific medical benefits you can get will depend on which Social Security disability benefits you qualify for. If you're eligible for SSDI, you'll generally be able to get Medicare (even if you're not yet 65), though not right away. If you qualify for SSI disability benefits, you should immediately be eligible for Medicaid.
(Learn more about the differences between SSDI and SSI disability benefits.)
If you have PD or PS, you can apply for Social Security disability benefits (both SSDI and SSI) by calling the SSA at 800-772-1213 (or TTY 800-325-0778 for the hearing impaired). Social Security will make an appointment for you to apply over the phone or at a local SSA office.
You can also apply for SSDI benefits online or get your SSI application started online. Some people are eligible to apply for SSI through the online disability application. Others will need to finish their applications by phone or in person.
After you've completed your application, a Social Security claims examiner and a doctor specially trained in SSA's medical rules will review your file. They'll request records from your doctors, send you questionnaires to complete, or ask you to attend an examination by a doctor Social Security hires (called a consultative exam).
Once the evidence in your file is complete, Social Security will issue a decision. On average, this takes four to five months, but it could take longer. And if your application is denied, you can appeal the decision. Most disability claims are won on appeal, especially for progressive conditions like Parkinson's.
Updated September 12, 2022