Sleep Apnea and Social Security Disability

If your sleep apnea or related complications are severe enough to keep you from working, you could qualify for disability benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Sleep apnea is a common, potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. People with sleep apnea typically stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds at a time while they're sleeping, and these short pauses in breathing can happen up to 400 times every night.

If you have sleep apnea, chances are you rarely have a good night's sleep. You likely struggle with hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness), feeling fatigued and tired throughout the day. Chronic sleep disruptions caused by apnea can affect daytime alertness, intellectual ability, memory, and mood—sometimes to the point where it interferes with your ability to work full-time.

Is Sleep Apnea a Disability?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) isn't likely to find sleep apnea by itself to be a disability unless the condition is exceptionally severe. But if you find yourself falling asleep during the day or struggling to focus—despite receiving treatment such as a positive airway pressure (CPAP, APAP, or BiPAP) device—the agency has to take these symptoms into consideration when determining whether you're disabled.

Many people with sleep apnea also have other medical conditions or complications that limit the types of jobs they can do. For example, sleep apnea increases the risk of many cardiovascular (heart- and blood-related) disorders, such as:

If you have one of the above conditions in addition to sleep apnea, you may be able to qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Getting Disability Benefits for Sleep Apnea-Related Disorders

Most people who have sleep apnea will have a hard time qualifying for disability. This is because sleep apnea by itself isn't one of Social Security's listed impairments that the agency considers automatically disabling. Nor is it likely that the SSA will find that you can't do any jobs because of your sleep apnea symptoms alone.

But if you have complications from sleep apnea, or other severe conditions, you're more likely to qualify.

Qualifying With Complications From Sleep Apnea

The SSA does have listings for the following sleep apnea-related impairments:

If your medical record doesn't contain the evidence required to meet one of the above listings, Social Security can still find you disabled if no jobs exist that you can do with your residual functional capacity (RFC).

Qualifying With an RFC

Your RFC is the most you're capable of doing, mentally and physically, in a work environment. The SSA uses the restrictions in your RFC to determine what kind of work you can still do.

For example, if you suffer from extreme fatigue that causes you to fall asleep during the day, your RFC might restrict you from jobs that involve driving or operating dangerous equipment. Or, if you have chronic heart failure caused by pulmonary hypertension, your RFC could limit you from doing work requiring lifting more than 10 pounds.

Social Security will compare the restrictions in your current RFC with the physical and mental requirements of your past jobs to see if you can still do them. If not, the SSA will look for other jobs that you're able to do given your functional limitations. Unless you're older than 50 and haven't finished high school, the SSA is likely to say that there are sedentary (sit-down) jobs you could do.

But if the SSA determines that your RFC has so many restrictions that you couldn't do even the easiest, least stressful jobs—for instance, your fatigue causes you to fall asleep on the job, make mistakes, or misunderstand simple instructions—the agency will agree that you can't work and will find that you're disabled. (Learn more about how Social Security decides whether you can work.)

Updated December 23, 2022

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