Scoliosis (skow-lee-OH-sis) is an abnormal curve in the spine—usually diagnosed during childhood or adolescence—that can cause it to form in a "C" or "S" shape. Scoliosis is one of the most common back disorders, with about 3 million cases in the United States diagnosed every year. More than 80% of scoliosis cases are idiopathic, meaning that doctors don't know what's causing the disorder. The remaining cases are either hereditary or develop as a result of another disease or trauma.
Most people with scoliosis have mild symptoms that are easily treated. But people with more severe scoliosis can experience complications such as back pain, nerve damage, and even difficulty breathing if the spinal curvature compresses the heart or lungs. Such severe scoliosis might require surgery to correct.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that if symptoms from musculoskeletal disorders such as scoliosis are severe enough, they can significantly interfere with your daily routine and prevent you from working. If you're unable to work full-time for at least 12 months due to scoliosis, you might qualify for disability benefits.
Spine disorders are some of the most frequently cited impairments—illnesses or injuries that can keep you from working—Social Security claims examiners see in disability applications. Because symptoms of scoliosis vary in intensity, disability examiners will review your application to see how your scoliosis causes pain and limits your ability to move.
The SSA won't award benefits to applicants whose symptoms don't interfere much with everyday activities like grocery shopping or cleaning. But for applicants with the most severe symptoms (and supporting medical documentation), the agency can award benefits in one of two ways:
When SSA examiners, administrative law judges (ALJs), and attorneys talk about a disability claim "meeting or equaling a listing," they're referring to a list of severe disorders that Social Security has already decided are disabling, provided the application contains specific medical evidence. If the SSA finds that the severity of your impairment meets or equals a listing, the agency can find you disabled without needing to determine whether you can do any work.
Scoliosis doesn't have its own listing in Social Security's "blue book" (another name for the listing of impairments, historically in a blue manual). But if your scoliosis is severe enough that it puts pressure on nerves, affecting your ability to walk or use your hands, the SSA can evaluate your disability claim under one of the listings for musculoskeletal impairments.
Many disability applicants with scoliosis also have other conditions that are related to, or are caused by, their spinal malformation. Some people who have scoliosis where the spine twists in addition to the sideways bend (rotoscoliosis) develop a disorder as they age called listhesis. Or, a type of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis can cause some of the bones in your spine to fuse, resulting in a disorder similar to scoliosis (kyphosis). If you've received a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, Social Security can find you disabled under its listing for inflammatory arthritis.
If you think you might qualify for benefits based on a listed impairment—whether for the above listings or any associated cardiovascular and respiratory disorders—try to get a medical source statement from your doctor. Social Security values the opinions of doctors who've seen you consistently and can help explain the technical terms used in your record.
Even if Social Security thinks that you don't meet or equal one of the listed impairments, the agency can still find you disabled if you can show that there aren't any jobs you can do with your limitations. The process the SSA uses to determine what you can and can't do in a work environment is called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC).
If you have scoliosis, your RFC will include physical limitations on:
If your record contains evidence of mental limitations—like difficulty focusing due to pain—your RFC will also include "non-exertional" limitations, such as whether you can perform complex or simple tasks and how much contact you can have with other people.
Social Security will then look at your RFC to determine if your current restrictions eliminate your ability to do all the jobs you've done in the past. Depending on your age, education, and skills, you'll likely have to show that you can't do the easiest, least physically demanding jobs. For example, if you need to elevate your legs frequently in order to relieve pain in your back, it's unlikely that any employer would hire you to do even basic assembly work.
This last part can trip up many disability applicants. For more information, see our article on getting disability for back problems because of a reduced capacity to work.
When you apply for disability benefits, Social Security asks you to list the names, dates, and locations of any medical treatment you've been receiving. With your permission, the agency obtains your medical records and a claims examiner reviews them. The examiner will be on the lookout for the following:
Ideally, your medical record will contain most, if not all, of the above items. If you're worried that you're missing crucial pieces of information, such as an MRI, try to set up an appointment with your doctor. If you can't afford to see a doctor, or don't have transportation to get to the doctor's office, let Social Security know. The agency won't hold it against you if you have a good reason for not getting treatment, and can send you to an examination on their own dime—called a consultative examination—if they need more information.
Because scoliosis is commonly diagnosed in adolescence, you or your child might qualify for disability benefits under Social Security's childhood listings if the scoliosis is severe enough. The SSA's child listings are similar to the adult listings in many ways, meaning you'll have to provide the same types of medical evidence, like a nerve conduction study, that you would for an adult listing.
The child listings do differ from the adult listings in some important ways. In addition to the medical documentation, you'll likely need to show that you or your child are exceptionally limited in some of the following functional domains:
Social Security looks for evidence of these limitations in educational records, interviews with friends and family, and letters from teachers. If you or your child have functional limitations that are outside the normal range for children of the same age, the SSA can find you or your child disabled.
Updated June 6, 2022
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