Can You Get Disability for Back Pain Without a Known Cause?

More back pain does not necessarily mean a more serious injury, but Social Security wants proof of physical damage or abnormality.

By , Attorney | Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney

Chronic back pain is a frequent symptom reported on Social Security disability applications. The underlying causes of back pain can vary, but they commonly involve degeneration or misalignment of the spine. The pain can range from a persistent, dull ache to intense, debilitating agony.

Severe back pain can be unrelated to the extent of physical damage to your spine. A simple back strain can cause painful muscle spasms that can make it difficult to walk or even stand, while somebody with a large herniated disc might not experience any pain at all.

What Causes Back Pain?

The causes of back pain can be as complex as the spine itself. Common conditions that result in back pain include the following:

  • Bones in your spine (called vertebrae) can press on the large nerve roots that go into your legs and arms.
  • The discs in your spine that cushion the vertebrae can be compressed.
  • Muscles in your back that help keep you upright can be strained.
  • Your bones, ligaments (tissues that hold your muscles to your bones), or joints may be injured.

Many cases of back pain are caused by stresses on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine. Sit-down jobs, obesity, and strenuous sports are examples of activities and lifestyles that can make a person vulnerable to spinal stress or damage.

Risk Factors for Back Pain

Several factors that indicate that you're at a higher risk of developing back pain include:

  • a lack of exercise (sedentary lifestyle)
  • obesity
  • poor posture
  • pregnancy
  • age
  • smoking
  • stress
  • depression, and
  • a job that requires heavy lifting, lots of bending and twisting, or whole-body vibration (truck driving, sandblasting, and so on), or sitting all day.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits Due to Back Pain

When the Social Security Administration (SSA) receives a disability application for back pain, the agency will generally want to see documentation of medical imaging (such as X-ray, CT scan, or MRI) that shows where the back pain is coming from. Disability applicants who don't have medical imaging in their records are going to have a hard time winning benefits.

Before you start a disability application for back pain, here are some questions to help you decide whether you're ready to apply:

  • Have you been seeing a doctor for your back pain?
  • Has your doctor told you what's causing your back pain?
  • Did you have an MRI, X-ray, CT scan, or another lab test on your back?
  • Have you been treating your pain with medication or physical therapy?

The SSA can't find you disabled based solely on subjective pain. The agency will need to see that a doctor has made a specific diagnosis of the cause (etiology) of your back pain, supported by objective medical imaging, tests, and physical examinations. If the doctor hasn't found any abnormal physical results—despite reports of pain—the SSA can't award you disability benefits.

If you've had trouble maintaining a regular relationship with a doctor because you don't have health insurance (or your health insurance doesn't cover many tests), see if you can find a low-cost or free clinic in your area. The SSA will sometimes send you to get an X-ray on their own dime—called a consultative examination—if they need more objective information, but they won't pay for more costly tests such as an MRI.

Additional Information About Back Pain

If your back pain is the result of an injury on the job, see our articles on whether you might be entitled to workers' compensation benefits or short-term disability insurance.

If your back pain is caused by a properly documented mental disorder, Social Security may award you benefits. Learn more about somatoform pain disorder here.

For more information, see our articles on how Social Security treats chronic pain and how Social Security evaluates common back problems.

Updated August 3, 2022

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