Can I Get Disability for Graves' Disease?

It's hard to win Social Security disability benefits for Graves' disease alone, but you have a better chance if you have complications or other illnesses.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Graves' disease is an endocrine disorder that involves the thyroid gland. It's the most common source of "hyperthyroidism," the overproduction of thyroid hormones.

The effects of Graves' disease on your body and your ability to work will vary from person to person. This article will cover what Graves' disease is, what it generally takes to qualify for Social Security disability if you have Graves' disease, and how to apply for benefits.

Is Graves' Disease a Disability?

Most patients with Graves' disease are able to treat and stabilize their condition without having to quit work. If you can work and earn a certain amount of income (what Social Security calls "substantial gainful activity," or SGA), then your Graves' disease won't be considered disabling. Social Security defines SGA as earning about $1,600 per month or more (or about $2,600 if you're legally blind).

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has created a list of conditions (called the Blue Book) that can be severe enough to automatically qualify an applicant for disability. Graves' disease isn't among the specific impairments listed. That makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to win disability benefits based on Graves' disease alone.

Diagnosis, Symptoms, and Treatment of Graves' Disease

It's been suggested that Graves' disease is an autoimmune response to some type of virus, because it occurs suddenly and, often, later in life. Women are eight times more likely to suffer from Graves' Disease than men. Most people who have Graves' are between 30 and 50 years old, although you can develop Graves' disease at any age.

Your body needs thyroid hormones to regulate your metabolism and control your heart rate, digestive functions, and other critical systems. Graves' disease causes your body to make antibodies (designed to fight infection) that trick your thyroid gland into overproducing hormones.

Symptoms of Graves' Disease

An overactive thyroid can cause a number of symptoms. If you have Graves' disease, your could experience any of the following:

  • protruding eyes ("Graves' orbitopathy")
  • a skin condition on the lower extremities that causes thick, red skin ("Graves' dermopathy")
  • extreme weight loss
  • a goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland)
  • trouble sleeping and fatigue
  • an irregular heartbeat, and
  • hand tremors.

How Is Grave's Disease Diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose Graves' by testing thyroid hormone levels in your blood (thyroid stimulating hormone, or TSH). Your doctor might do a radioactive iodine uptake test. Your thyroid uses iodine to make hormones, so if it's overactive, it will absorb more iodine than normal.

If you're showing signs of bulging or enlarged eyeballs, your doctor might order an ultrasound, CT scan, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate the muscles and tissues around your eyes. Evidence of swelling can indicate Graves' disease.

Treatment for Graves' Disease

Fortunately, Graves' disease can be treated and can even go into remission. With treatment, for some patients, the disease will eventually go away completely.

But if left untreated, the long-term effects of Graves' disease can be serious, even life-threatening. If you have Graves' Disease, your treatment(s) could include:

  • taking anti-thyroid medications
  • surgical removal of the thyroid, and
  • radioactive iodine treatment.

Thyroid removal and radioactive iodine treatment generally result in hypothyroidism—meaning your body can no longer produce thyroid hormones, and you'd then need to take thyroid supplements to maintain your metabolism.

Qualifying for Social Security Disability With Grave's Disease

Even though Social Security has no specific listing for Grave's disease, you might still be able to get disability benefits in certain circumstances. There are three ways to qualify medically for Social Security disability benefits:

  • meet the requirements of a listing
  • medically equal a listing, or
  • prove that your functional limitations make you unable to do any kind of work.

Meeting a Listing With Complications of Graves' Disease

If you have complications that are listed in the Blue Book, Social Security will assess those medical conditions under the disability listing for that condition. Listing 9.00 for endocrine disorders gives some examples of how the SSA will evaluate complications caused by disorders of the thyroid gland.

For instance:

  • Graves' disease can sometimes lead to increased heart rate, which can lead to heart failure or other cardiovascular damage, which is evaluated under Social Security's cardiovascular listings.
  • The long-term effects of Grave's disease can lead to an increased risk of strokes, which are evaluated under the SSA's listing for cerebrovascular disease, or central nervous system vascular accidents.
  • If Graves' disease has caused you to have severe anxiety or depression, Social Security will evaluate these problems under its mental disorders listing.

If you have a complication from Graves' disease that matches a listing, you will qualify medically for disability benefits. (Learn about Social Security's non-medical requirements for disability benefits.)

When Multiple Conditions Add Up to Equal a Listing

If you have multiple impairments—whether your other conditions are caused by Graves' disease or not—Social Security must consider their combined effects in determining if you qualify for disability benefits. Even if none of your conditions matches a listing individually, together, they could "equal a listing."

For instance, about 25% of Graves' patients will develop an eye condition called Graves' orbitopathy (also called thyroid eye disease, or TED). The symptoms of TED can range from mild to severe and include:

  • eye pain and headaches
  • dry eyes or excessive tearing
  • bulging eyes(which can be disfiguring enough to cause depression and anxiety for some patients), and
  • visual limitations (like double vision).

If TED seriously affects your eyesight despite treatment, and you're battling depression because of your illness, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits—even if neither your vision issues nor your depression on their own probably wouldn't be enough to equal a listing.

Social Security will consider the combined effects of all your impairments to see if the limitations they cause "equal a listing." If the SSA finds that your condition is medically equal to a listing, you'll qualify for disability. (Learn more about getting disability benefits by equalling a listing.)

Getting Disability Because Graves' Disease Keeps You From Working

Even if your condition doesn't match or equal a listing, you might still qualify for disability benefits. If your Grave's symptoms make it impossible for you to work full-time in any kind of job, you could meet Social Security's requirement for disability benefits through a medical-vocational allowance.

Social Security is required to consider the effect your impairment has on your ability to perform daily activities and to work. Social Security will use the medical evidence in your file to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is the most you can be expected to do given your medical condition.

In determining your RFC, Social Security will consider:

  • your symptoms
  • any complications of your disease
  • the side effects of treatment
  • your functional limitations (the things you physically and/or mentally can't do according to the evidence in your medical file), and
  • any restrictions your doctor has placed on you (like not being allowed to drive or not lifting more than 10lbs).

Once Social Security knows your RFC, the agency must then determine if you can return to your prior work. If your RFC rules out your doing your prior work activities, the SSA will then assess whether there's any kind of work you can still do, given your RFC and your:

  • age
  • education, and
  • job skills.

Because Social Security must consider all the evidence in your medical record in making a disability determination, it's important to be sure all your conditions and limitations are well documented. (Learn more about the type of medical evidence you'll need to prove to Social Security that you're disabled.)

How to Apply for Disability for Grave's Disease

You can file an application for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) in one of three ways. You can choose to file:

When you apply for SSDI, Social Security will automatically consider your application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits as well.

If you're applying for SSI disability benefits only, you can let the SSA know you want to file an application and Social Security will schedule an appointment for you. Or you can call Social Security (at the number above) to file by phone. You can also get your application started online.

However you choose to file your application, you can expect it to take Social Security several months or more to decide whether you qualify for disability benefits.

(Learn more about the Social Security disability application process.)

Updated December 12, 2023

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