Can You Get Disability Benefits for a Torn ACL?

A torn ACL can result in pain, swelling, and loss of motion in the knee that can make it difficult to work.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

A torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in the knee refers to a tear in the tissue that connects the bones of the thigh and the shin. The ACL runs through the knee and is commonly injured during athletics.

ACL tears can be painful and limiting. You might feel swelling at your knee and experience a reduced range of motion and discomfort while walking. While many people recover from an ACL injury within one year, other people might experience complications that keep them from returning to work full-time.

Can I Get Disability for My Torn ACL?

You may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) if you're unable to work at the level of substantial gainful activity for at least one year. Social Security doesn't offer temporary or short-term benefits, so if your ACL tear heals enough for you to return to work in less than twelve months, you won't be eligible for disability.

When Your Torn ACL Keeps You From Doing Your Past Jobs

In order to determine that you're disabled, Social Security first needs to see whether you're capable of performing your past relevant work. The agency does this by reviewing your medical records to assess your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions on what you're capable of doing in a work environment.

Somebody with a torn ACL is likely to have restrictions on how long they can stand and walk on the job. (The more severe the ACL tear is, the more restrictive your RFC will be.) In Social Security lingo, your ACL tear might limit you to work at the "light" or "sedentary" exertional level—meaning jobs that don't involve spending a lot of time on your feet.

So if your past work required you to stand and walk most of the time—or involved extensive kneeling, squatting, crouching, or crawling—Social Security is unlikely to find that you can return to your old job with your current RFC. If you're over the age of 50, that might be enough for the agency to find you disabled under the medical-vocational grid rules. But if you're younger, you'll need to show that you can't do any other jobs.

When Your Torn ACL Keeps You From Doing Any Other Work

Social Security expects that younger people will be able to learn a new job even if they can't return to their past work. Generally, this means that the limitations in your RFC will need to rule out even the easiest sit-down jobs for you.

Showing that you can't do simple, sedentary work can be challenging. You'll need to have strong medical records (and, ideally, a helpful doctor's note). But with certain restrictions in your RFC, you can eliminate sit-down jobs. Examples include:

  • needing to elevate your legs above hip level in order to reduce swelling
  • taking additional breaks throughout the day to relieve pain
  • having trouble concentrating due to side effects from medication, or
  • missing too many days of work.

Attorneys frequently use evidence of these restrictions to successfully cross-examine vocational expert testimony at a disability hearing. (See SSR 96-9p for more examples.)

I'm Recovering From Surgery for My Torn ACL and Can't Work. Can I Get Disability?

Many people who've had ACL surgery take several months off work for recovery and physical therapy before regaining full use of the knee. Social Security generally assumes positive results from surgery that keep you off work for six months at the most. But if your injury isn't healing the way your doctors expected it to, you might need more than a year to recuperate.

In order to qualify for SSDI or SSI benefits, Social Security regulations state that your severe impairments—the "why" you're disabled—must last or be expected to last for at least twelve months. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1509) So if you're ten months into your rehabilitation but your doctor thinks you still need three months before you can return to work, you'll meet this durational requirement for disability.

And if, after twelve months, you recover enough to go back to work, you can still get benefits for the time that you weren't working (this is called a closed period of disability).

I Had Surgery but I Can't Bend My Knee Like I Used to. Will Social Security See This as a Disability?

Any reduced range of motion in your knee that's medically documented will be reflected in your RFC as limitations on certain work activities. Minor limitations might eliminate jobs involving frequent driving or activities (like squatting) that could put pressure on your knee. Major limitations—like being unable to stand for two hours out of the workday—can rule out work entirely.

Extreme limitations, such as being unable to move around independently, can qualify you for disability automatically under Social Security's Blue Book of listed impairments. If you've had knee surgery and need help walking, you might meet the criteria of listing 1.17 for reconstructive surgery of a major joint. For more information, see our article on getting disability for joint problems.

I Developed Arthritis in My Knee After My Torn ACL. Will This Help Me Win My Claim?

The ACL isn't a self-healing ligament and often must be repaired surgically with tissue graft. Continuing athletic or work activity on a torn ACL can lead to significant cartilage damage and osteoarthritis.

Social Security is required to consider how multiple conditions combined affect your ability to work. If you developed osteoarthritis in your injured knee and you can't walk without assistance, you'll have an easier time winning your disability claim. Very severe cases of osteoarthritis might meet (or "equal") the criteria of listing 1.18 for abnormality of a major joint. Needing to use a walker or multiple ambulatory aids, for example, is strong evidence that you're disabled.

I Developed Chronic Pain After My Knee Surgery for My Torn ACL. Will This Help My Claim?

Chronic pain can interfere with your ability to perform day-to-day activities like grocery shopping, driving, or socializing, as well as with work activities that require physical exertion or concentration. Make sure that you provide a detailed report to Social Security about how your pain affects your activities of daily living so that the agency can consider these restrictions when deciding your claim.

Many people dealing with chronic pain develop anxiety and depression as a result. If you've been treated for anxiety or depression by a doctor, counselor, or therapist, let Social Security know. The agency will consider the effects of your depression or anxiety together with any physical limitations from your torn ACL.

What Kind of Medical Evidence Do I Need to Give Social Security to Prove I'm Disabled?

Your medical records are the foundation of your disability claim. Social Security can't find you disabled based on a condition or limitation that isn't documented in your records, so make sure that the agency has the names and contact information for all of your treating doctors.

You can also send Social Security medical records yourself if you can get them from your doctor. When requesting records, make sure that they include important information such as:

  • imaging reports (such as X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans)
  • physical therapy notes documenting your range of motion
  • prescribed medications, including any side effects you've experienced, and
  • hospital admission and discharge forms for any inpatient surgery.

Because the disability determination process can take years, it's common to change providers or try new treatment methods. You can help speed things along by providing Social Security with updated information about your medical treatment every 3-6 months. Keep in mind that if you haven't had recent medical treatment, you'll face an uphill battle in getting disability benefits—but resources are available for people who are uninsured (or underinsured).

Updated August 24, 2023

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