Classic Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a degenerative brain disorder that primarily affects a person’s movement in its early phases. Although resting tremors are a well-known sign of PD, the disease can also produce problems such as muscle stiffness, decreased coordination, difficulty standing and walking, and difficulty speaking clearly. These symptoms can make it difficult or impossible for someone to work. PD's motor problems are related to a decrease of dopamine production in brain areas 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 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). Most cases of PS are caused by classic Parkinson’s disease, but there are other disorders that can result in the same signs and symptoms. Examples of these PS cases include brain disorders caused by strokes, brain trauma, drugs, toxins, brain infections, and brain tumors. Most cases of PS are not reversible.
Movement problems can sometimes be helped by drugs that replace the missing dopamine, but this treatment will not stop general worsening, because the real culprit is alpha-synuclein. Some severe cases that no longer respond to drugs have had tremors helped by placement of deep brain electrodes, but this is highly invasive and not a cure. Experimental fetal brain transplants that were tried in the past also failed. Until the formation of abnormal alpha-synuclein can be stopped, PD will remain incurable.
If you are an adult who has been diagnosed with any kind of parkinsonism, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. If you meet the specific criteria provided in the Social Security Administration’s disability listing for parkinsonism, listing 11.06, you will be granted benefits.
To qualify for benefits under listing 11.06, your medical records must document one of the following:
Note that marked means worse than moderate, but less than extreme.
If your PS symptoms don’t meet the guidelines in the above listing, you could still potentially qualify for benefits under what are referred to as “medical-vocational” rules. To receive 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, your reports of your symptoms, the opinions of your doctor and any consultative examiner (a doctor hired by SSA to evaluate you, if necessary), and any other evidence in your claim file. You will then be assigned a physical residual functional capacity (RFC), which is the heaviest classification of work that the SSA feels you can perform (such as sedentary, light, or heavy work.) If you have a mental problem from parkinsonism, you will also receive a mental RFC by a psychiatrist or psychologist working for the SSA.
The SSA will then have a vocational analyst consider your age, level of education, and prior work experience to determine if you can return to that work. If not, the analyst will decide if there are any other jobs that you would be able to do.
If you have other physical or mental conditions that impact your ability work, the SSA will also consider those when assigning you an RFC and making this determination. If you are over 50, you have a greater chance of being approved for benefits. Having less education and having a history of unskilled work can also increase the odds that your application will be approved. For more information, see our article on how you can get disability benefits with an RFC.
To apply for benefits, call the SSA at (800) 772-1213. The SSA will make an appointment for you to apply over the phone or at a local SSA office. You can also apply online at www.ssa.gov if you are applying for SSDI only (not SSI). Once your application is complete, your file will be reviewed by an SSA claims examiner as well as by a doctor specially trained in SSA’s medical rules. They will request records from your doctors, send you questionnaires to complete, or ask you to attend an examination by a doctor that they hire. Once the evidence in your file is complete, a decision will be issued. On average this takes four to five months, but it could take much longer.