Disability Benefits for a Bulging or Herniated Disc

If your disc is pressing on a nerve and making walking difficult or preventing you from stooping or bending, you might be able to get Social Security disability benefits.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated 4/09/2024

A bulging disc or herniated disc is the result of pressure on an intervertebral disc that results in a protrusion (bulge) from the disc. Some doctors say that a bulging disc is different than a herniated disc because it hasn't ruptured. Both bulging and herniated discs can be the result of:

The most common place for a herniated disc is in the lower part of the spine, called the lumbar spine, especially between the L4-L5 vertebrae and the L5-S1 vertebrae. An L4-L5 herniated disc can cause debilitating back pain and hip pain—either temporarily or chronically.

In severe cases, a bulging disc or herniated disc can cause muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness and tingling. If these symptoms are severe enough, they might qualify you for disability benefits.

Treatment for Herniated or Bulging Discs

Treatment aimed at relieving pressure on the disc and the reducing pain of bulging and herniated discs might include one or more of the following:

  • physical therapy
  • non-steroidal pain medications
  • oral steroids, or
  • epidural injections.

Spinal surgery can also repair some herniated discs.

Can You Get Disability for Herniated or Bulging Discs?

First, to be considered for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA), your disability must have lasted, or be expected to last, at least one year. Many herniated or bulging discs either resolve themselves within a year or are repaired and fixed by surgery (spinal fusion, laminectomy, or discectomy), so this requirement can be tough to meet. (Social Security generally assumes that it takes 90 to 120 days to recover from back surgery in most cases, except for unusual situations.)

Second, Social Security requires either that your back injury is so severe that you meet the requirements of a disability listing for spinal disorders or that you can't be expected to do your prior work because of your functional limitations, or any other job, because of your age, education, and prior job skills (or lack thereof).

Social Security's Official Impairment Listing for Spinal Disorders

Social Security usually evaluates herniated discs under its impairment listing for spinal disorders that result in nerve root compression (pressure on spinal nerves from the bulging disc). (The listing includes "herniated nucleus pulposus," another word for herniated disc, as a disorder that can cause the impingement of a nerve root.) Bulging or herniated discs can also cause spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal).

To match Social Security's listing for spinal disorders, your herniated or bulging disc must cause a serious condition like nerve root compression, or possibly stenosis in some severe cases. You'll need clinical tests for reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation, as well as an MRI, X-rays, or CT scan to prove your diagnosis of nerve root impingement or stenosis.

Your condition must also meet the complex criteria laid out in the listings (including having serious difficulty walking or using your hands). Read our articles on the disability listing requirements for nerve root compression, sciatica, or stenosis, to find out if you could qualify.

Alternatively, if your herniated disc or a failed spinal procedure has caused nerve irritation and inflammation, you could meet the listing for arachnoiditis (inflammation of a membrane surrounding the spinal cord).

Medical-Vocational Allowance for Herniated Disc

Most patients suffering from a herniated or bulging disc won't meet the demanding criteria of the spinal listings. Only about 10% of claimants approved for benefits for musculoskeletal disorders meet or equal the listings—the other 90% are approved through a "medical-vocational allowance." (Revised Medical Criteria for Evaluating Musculoskeletal Disorders, Final Rule Q&A, 2020). That means Social Security determines they can no longer work at any job because of their impairments.

Your RFC: How Social Security Decides What You Can Still Do

To determine whether or not you can still work, Social Security will use the medical evidence in your file to assess your physical and mental abilities that remain despite your medical condition. Social Security calls that remaining ability your "residual functional capacity" (RFC).

Your RFC will include your "exertional limits," like:

  • how long you can stand
  • how much you can lift and carry
  • whether you can bend, stoop, or crouch, and
  • whether you can climb ladders or use stairs.

If your functional limitations don't allow you to do your former job (for example, your doctor says you can't bend, crouch, reach overhead, or lift anything above 15 pounds), you might qualify for a medical-vocational allowance.

Who Can Get a Medical-Vocational Allowance?

To get a medical-vocational allowance, Social Security must decide that you can't do your past work and can't be expected to safely adjust to any less demanding work. Social Security makes this determination based on your:

  • RFC
  • age
  • education, and
  • transferable job skills.

Social Security acknowledges that older workers have a harder time learning new job skills and switching careers. So, the SSA uses special rules for older disability claimants (called the "grid rules") that take age into account. That means if you're over 50, you have a better chance of winning a medical-vocational allowance.

For more information, see our article on medical-vocational allowances for back conditions.

How to Apply for Disability Due to a Herniated Disc

The fastest way to apply for SSDI or SSI disability benefits is with Social Security's online benefits application. The online application can be accessed from anywhere anytime. And you can pause the process as often as needed without losing your place.

If you prefer, you can apply by phone by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213. You also have the option to apply in person at your local Social Security office.

Learn more about the Social Security disability application process.

Appealing a Denial of Benefits

Many people who apply for disability based on a bulging or herniated disc get denied on the first application and need to appeal and go to a hearing in front of an administrative law judge (ALJ). Even then, only about 50% of claimants win their hearings.

Your chances of winning at a hearing improve if you're represented by a disability lawyer because of the strategies lawyers use for winning disability claims. They can make sure you get a fair chance in front of the judge.

Learn more about how lawyers develop evidence for disability appeals and how disability attorneys are paid.

Veterans Benefits Based on the VA Rating for a Herniated Disc

If your bulging or herniated disc is due to a service-connected injury, you might qualify for disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in addition to any Social Security disability you're due. How much VA disability you can receive depends on your disability rating.

The VA usually rates a bulging or herniated disc using a diagnostic code for "intervertebral disc syndrome" in the Schedule of Ratings. Diagnostic code 5243 is for disc herniation with "compression or irritation of the adjacent nerve root" (intervertebral disc syndrome). If there's no nerve root involvement, the VA could use diagnostic code 5242 for "degenerative disc disease other than intervertebral disc syndrome." (38 C.F.R § 4.71a.)

The diagnostic code for intervertebral disc syndrome uses a formula based on how long you have "incapacitating episodes." The rating for a herniated disc ranges from 10-60%, depending on the number of weeks you spent on doctor-ordered bedrest during the past 12 months:

  • 6 weeks or more = 60%
  • at least 4 weeks = 40%
  • at least 2 weeks = 20%, and
  • at least 1 week = 10%.

The rating for a herniated disc could also be based on the General Rating Formula for Diseases and Injuries of the Spine. The VA uses whichever method results in a higher rating.

Under the general rating formula, the VA rating for a herniated disc ranges from 10-40%—depending on how it affects your range of motion.

Learn more about VA disability ratings and how your rating affects your VA benefits.

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