Are Social Security Disability Benefits Available for GERD and Acid Reflux?

GERD and acid reflux don't typically become disabling until they cause severe complications.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)—also referred to as chronic acid reflux—is a condition in which acidic stomach contents flow backward into the tube connecting the throat and stomach (the esophagus). When the valve between the esophagus and stomach doesn't close properly, stomach acid can back up, causing heartburn and inflammation when it comes in contact with the esophageal tissue.

Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of GERD

Almost everybody experiences occasional episodes of acid reflux at some point, typically after a large meal. But constant episodes of acid reflux—meaning you have it several times a week for several weeks or months—can cause ongoing symptoms that affect your quality of life.

What Are the Symptoms of GERD?

Persistent heartburn is the most frequent symptom of GERD. Other symptoms include chest pain, hoarseness in the morning, or trouble swallowing. The backup of digestive fluids in the esophagus may also cause dry cough, bad breath, and indigestion.

What Causes GERD?

No one specific cause of GERD has been identified, although hiatal hernias are thought to be a contributing factor. Hiatal hernias happen when part of the stomach intrudes on the diaphragm (the muscle that makes your chest expand and contract), making it easier for stomach acid to go around the diaphragm and enter the esophagus.

Can GERD Be Treated Successfully?

GERD is often successfully treated with over-the-counter antacid medications. Doctors may also recommend lifestyle changes, such as dietary restrictions and abstinence from alcohol, to alleviate symptoms. More severe cases of GERD may require stronger prescription medications or even surgical intervention.

Can I Get Social Security Disability Benefits for GERD?

It's unlikely that you'll qualify for disability benefits based on GERD alone. Because GERD and acid reflux are generally managed with diet and medication, symptoms don't usually significantly interfere with your daily routine. But if you develop serious complications from GERD or you have other related digestive disorders, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

For example, about 1 in 10 people with GERD develop "Barrett's esophagus," a condition where the esophageal lining becomes damaged and thickened. While you can't usually get disability for Barrett's esophagus on its own, it can increase the risk of esophageal cancer. Stomach cancer has also been linked to chronic GERD. If you've developed cancer of the stomach or esophagus, you may qualify for disability automatically under Social Security's "Blue Book" listings for cancer.

How Does Social Security Decide If I'm Disabled?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) awards benefits to people who have a severe impairment that keeps them from working full-time for at least one year. Severe impairments are those that have "more than a minimal impact" on your activities of daily living.

GERD and acid reflux aren't usually considered disabilities and aren't likely to be found as severe impairments in all but the most extreme cases. However, the SSA is required to consider how all your medical conditions combined, whether severe or non-severe, impact your ability to work. If you have other digestive issues in addition to GERD, you'll have a better chance of showing that you're disabled. Examples include:

Social Security reviews your medical records for any functional limitations you have from your impairments and assesses how those limitations affect the types of jobs you can perform. Any physical or mental limitations you have are included in your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflect what you can and can't do at work.

The agency compares your current RFC with the exertional demands and skill level of your past work to see whether you could do those jobs today. If you can't, Social Security will need to determine if any other jobs exist that you could perform, despite the restrictions in your RFC. Then, if your RFC and other factors rule out both your past jobs and all other work, you'll receive disability benefits.

Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits

You can help strengthen your application for disability benefits by doing some basic preparations before you file. Write down the names, addresses, contact information, and dates of service for all the medical providers you've seen for treatment of your GERD or other digestive disorders. Remember that the SSA is unlikely to award you benefits without evidence of other impairments besides GERD, so if you're getting treated for any additional physical or mental conditions, make sure to let the agency know when you apply.

Ask your regular doctor—preferably a gastroenterologist—if they'd be willing to write a medical source statement discussing your symptoms and how they limit your activities. Your doctor's note should reference certain diagnostic tools, such as an X-ray, endoscopy, pH acidity test, or manometry (esophageal muscle measurement) to support their opinion.

When you're ready to provide the SSA with up-to-date and accurate medical records, you can start your application in several ways:

  • File online at Social Security's website.
  • Call 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, to speak with a representative.
  • Go in person to your local Social Security field office.

If you're not sure whether your medical records are enough for Social Security, consider asking an experienced disability attorney what your odds are. Many lawyers offer a free consultation for people thinking about applying for disability. And if you do decide to hire an attorney to help with your application, you'll have a greater chance of getting approved for benefits.

Updated February 2, 2024

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