Disability for Spinal Stenosis: Social Security Benefits and SSI

Social Security recognizes stenosis as a disabling condition but lists specific criteria for it to qualify for benefits.

Spinal stenosis is a condition that causes a narrowing of the spinal canal and compression of the spinal cord and nerves. Spinal stenosis is usually the result of the aging process; however, a bulging or ruptured disc may also be the cause. Spinal stenosis occurs in the cervical and lumbar areas of the spine.

Lumbar stenosis usually affects individuals above 50 years of age or older, and both males and females are affected. Statistically, an individual who suffers from cervical stenosis tends to be a 40- to 60-year-old male, although the condition may occur in either gender.

Symptoms and Treatment of Stenosis

Symptoms of cervical (neck) stenosis can include reflex abnormalities, weakness of the upper or lower limbs, radicular pain in the arms, sensory deficits, and possible wasting of the muscles. Symptoms of lumbar (lower back) stenosis may include loss of deep tendon reflexes (DTR), leg pain, and weakness in the legs. Additionally, walking may aggravate pain that is the result of lumbar stenosis.

Treatment for spinal stenosis, either lumbar or cervical, depends upon the area affected; however, there are surgical options for both types of spinal stenosis.

Does Stenosis Qualify for Disability Benefits?

Social Security does have an official listing for lumbar spinal stenosis in its Listing of Impairments. If you meet the requirements in the listing, you can automatically qualify for disability benefits. You must:

  • have pain in your lower back, buttocks, and thighs, with weakness in your lower extremities
  • have continual nonradicular (not radiating from a nerve) pain
  • have a positive MRI or CT scan confirming lumbar spinal stenosis, and
  • not be able to walk without a walker, two crutches, or someone's assistance to get around.

The results of an MRI or CT scan, confirming a diagnosis of stenosis, should be in your medical records when you apply for disability. Also in your records should be notes from a detailed physical exam with your doctor, including the results of testing your range of motion and muscle strength. Your doctor should also note what medications you are on and the treatments you have had, such as physical therapy or steroid injections.

It will also help a great deal if your doctor can submit a statement or RFC form describing your ability to walk, bend, squat, crouch, and rise, how long you can sit, and how the side effects of your medication may limit your ability to work.

These functional restrictions will be helpful when the SSA assesses your residual functional capacity (RFC). (If you are able to walk and get around without the assistance of assistive devices or people, you won't qualify for benefits automatically, but will have to get an RFC and hope for a medical-vocational allowance.) For more information on medical-vocational allowances, see disability RFCs for back problems.

Should You Hire a Disability Lawyer?

Unless you have lumbar stenosis so severe that you need assistance walking, you probably won't get disability benefits automatically. You'll need to really rely on your doctor to submit your functional restrictions to your SSA before they create an RFC for you, and to have objective medical evidence to back it up. A disability lawyer can definitely help you line this up, and knows the questions to ask your doctor regarding your stenosis. Find a disability lawyer here.

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