Can I Get Disability Benefits for Having a Pacemaker or Implanted Cardiac Defibrillator (ICD)?

If you have a pacemaker or implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD), you’ll still need to prove you can't work to get Social Security disability benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Having a pacemaker or implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD) doesn't automatically qualify you for Social Security disability, especially if the device is controlling your symptoms well. Social Security will assess your condition and limitations the same way as anyone else with a heart condition (except that the agency will wait for your condition to stabilize for at least three months after your pacemaker is installed to make a decision).

Social Security approves disability benefits for those whose activities are so limited by their condition that there's no job they can safely do. Social Security has two ways of assessing whether a disability applicant can work:

Is Having a Pacemaker Considered a Disability?

Both pacemakers and implanted defibrillators are used to help patients suffering from cardiac arrhythmias—conditions that cause your heart to beat irregularly like:

Cardiac arrhythmias don't always cause symptoms, but when they do, the symptoms can be severe enough to keep you from working. Symptoms can include:

  • tiring easily when walking, lifting objects, or doing chores.
  • fainting or nearly fainting (called syncope or near-syncope)
  • light-headedness or dizziness
  • chest pain
  • exercise intolerance, and
  • fatigue.

A pacemaker or implanted cardiac defibrillator won't automatically qualify you for Social Security disability. And if you don't have active symptoms after having the pacemaker or defibrillator implanted, you aren't likely to meet a disability listing.

But that doesn't necessarily mean you can't get disability benefits. If your doctor has limited you to light or sedentary work, and you're 50 years old or older, you have a chance of getting approval under the "grid rules," which we'll discuss below.

Can I Meet a Cardiovascular Listing With a Pacemaker or ICD?

The two main listings that would apply to someone with a pacemaker or implanted cardiac defibrillator are those for arrhythmias and chronic heart failure.

Arrhythmias. If your pacemaker or defibrillator isn't controlling your arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), you can check to see if you meet the listing for recurrent arrhythmias. If you still have a slow or irregular heartbeat after getting a pacemaker or ICD, and you've experienced three episodes of fainting or near fainting with altered consciousness in the past year, you should meet the requirements of the arrhythmias listing.

Heart failure. If you have congestive heart failure (diastolic or systolic), you could qualify under Social Security's listing for chronic heart failure. If, after implantation of a pacemaker or defibrillator, you still have symptoms like weakness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and/or dizziness, you might qualify for benefits under this listing.

But you'll also need to show that your symptoms are still severe enough to interfere with your ability to work, you'll need ONE of the following:

  • Your medical records show that you failed an exercise stress test.
  • Your doctor states that performing an exercise stress test would be too risky, and you can't independently perform activities of daily living such as showering, dressing, cooking, and keeping house.
  • You've had three or more episodes of acute congestive heart failure requiring hospitalization over the past year.

These listings aren't easy to meet, so most people with pacemakers or ICDs who get disability benefits qualify because of their physical limitations.

Measuring Your Limitations Against Job Requirements

If you can prove to Social Security that you can no longer work any type of full-time job due to your doctor's restrictions or your self-reported limitations, you have a good chance of getting disability benefits. For example, if you can prove that you experience such severe fatigue during the day that you must take breaks to lie down and rest, Social Security would agree that you're disabled.

But if your limitations aren't so extreme, Social Security might say there are jobs you can do that aren't that physically demanding. For instance, if your doctor has restricted you from working on hazardous equipment and walking or standing more than four hours per day, the number of jobs you can do is limited, but there are plenty of sit-down jobs you could do. If your past work was sedentary, you wouldn't be found disabled.

Is It Easier to Get Disability for a Pacemaker If I'm Older?

If your past work did require a good amount of standing and walking, and you can no longer do it, you might be able to get disability under the "grid rules"—if you're over 50 or 55. The grid rules lay out certain scenarios in which you must be found disabled.

For instance, if you're 55 years old and you're limited to sedentary work (can't stand or walk for more than two hours per day), you'll be found disabled if you have a history of either unskilled work or work that didn't teach skills that you can use to do sedentary work. See our section on the disability grid rules for more information.

Next Steps: Applying for Disability With a Pacemaker or ICD

You can apply online for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Or you can call Social Security to make an appointment to file your application at 800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). Or call or visit your local Social Security office.

Medical records. When you apply for disability benefits, you should provide Social Security with any medical records and test results you have, plus the names and contact information of all of your medical providers (especially your cardiologist). Your medical records—especially test results and doctors' notes about the treatments you've had and how your pacemaker or ICD limits your ability to work—are the backbone of your disability case.

RFC form. Ask your cardiologist to fill out a residual functional capacity (RFC) form saying what you're not able or allowed to do (such as not being able to stand for more than one hour per day or not being able to lift more than 20 pounds). Social Security is required to rely on your doctor's opinion when it's backed up by objective evidence and consistent with the rest of the evidence in your file.

Information about ICD shocks. If you have an ICD, you should include information in your disability file about how often the ICD shocks you. Be sure to document the following:

  • whether the shocks are painful
  • how the shocks affect your ability to carry out your daily activities, and
  • whether the shocks cause you psychological distress.

Even if the ICD prevents you from experiencing cardiac symptoms, frequent shocks in response to benign arrhythmias or electrical malfunction might lower your RFC so much that there are no jobs you can do.

Getting Help With Your Application

Consider hiring a disability lawyer or advocate to help prove that your limitations are too great for you to sustain any type of full-time work. Disability representatives aren't allowed to charge you if you don't win, and they're limited to a small percentage of your disability backpay (up to $7,200) if you do win.

Updated September 8, 2022

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