Can You Get Disability for Bradycardia or Tachycardia?

If your heart is beating slower or faster than normal, it might cause symptoms that interfere with your ability to work.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law
Updated 10/21/2021

Your heart is the most important muscle in your body. Each day, the average heart beats 100,000 times and pumps 2,000 gallons of blood through almost 100,000 miles of blood vessels, bringing oxygen to your brain and other vital organs. When your heart isn't beating as it should, it can cause symptoms in other parts of your body.

The typical heart rate for an adult at rest (not engaged in strenuous physical activity) is between 60 and 100 beats per minute. If your resting heart rate is fewer than 60 beats per minute, you have a condition known as bradycardia (brad-e-KAHR-dee-uh). If your resting heart rate is faster than 100 beats per minute, you have a condition known as tachycardia (tak-ih-KAHR-dee-uh).

What Are Bradycardia and Tachycardia?

The heart is a muscle, and like any muscle, it relies on electrical signals produced by the nervous system that makes it react in certain ways. The part of your heart that produces these electrical signals is called the "sinus node." Electrical signals from the sinus node tell the heart to contract, which starts a heartbeat. Because the sinus node is responsible for setting the rhythm of your heartbeat, it's referred to as the heart's pacemaker.

Bradycardia happens when the electrical signals that tell the heart to beat are slowed down or blocked. Tachycardia happens when the electrical signals that tell the heart to beat are firing too quickly. Sometimes, it's normal for you to have a heartbeat that is slow or fast. For example, if you're in deep sleep or a state of relaxation, your heart rate can go below 60 beats per minute. Likewise, if you're exercising or stressing out, your heart rate can go above 100 beats per minute. These situations don't normally require medical attention.

Are Bradycardia and Tachycardia Disabilities?

If you're experiencing symptoms of bradycardia or tachycardia while doing routine daily activities, like reading, watching TV, or cooking dinner, you'll want to let your doctor know. Bradycardia and tachycardia don't necessarily cause symptoms or complications, but they can become serious if it means that your heart is having difficulty pumping blood, since blood carries oxygen to your brain and other organs.

The symptoms of bradycardia and tachycardia can be very similar. They include:

  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pains or "fluttering"
  • difficulty with memory or focus
  • fainting or near-fainting, and
  • tiring easily when walking, lifting objects, or doing chores.

If you're having severe fatigue, you're fainting, or you're tiring easily when doing activities, you may be able to get Social Security disability benefits—we'll tell you how below.

Diagnosing and Treating Bradycardia and Tachycardia

There are several types of bradycardia. Your treatment will depend on which type of bradycardia you're diagnosed with.

  • Sinus bradycardia happens when your heartbeat starts in the normal pacemaker part of the heart, but the beat is less than 60 times per minute.
  • Sinus pause/sinus arrest happens when you miss one or more heartbeats because your pacemaker doesn't activate the electrical system in the rest of your heart.
  • Sick sinus syndrome, also known as "tachy-brady" syndrome, happens when your natural pacemaker doesn't work right, causing your heart to sometimes beat too fast, and other times, too slowly.
  • Heart block means that something is blocking the electrical impulses from passing through their normal pathways in the heart, usually resulting in a slower heart rate.

Likewise, there are several types of tachycardia.

  • Sinus tachycardia happens when your heart's pacemaker is firing rapidly because the body needs more oxygen.
  • Paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia (PSVT) happens when you have bouts of rapid, regular heart beating that originates in a part of the heart known as the atria, or upper chambers. (Atrial tachycardia is one form of PSVT.)
  • Ventricular tachycardia (V-Tach) happens when you have a rapid heartbeat originating in a part of the heart called the ventricles, resulting in less blood being pumped through your body.

Your doctor will want to figure out the underlying cause of your slow or fast heartbeat in order to determine the right treatment for you. This will likely include a physical examination and possibly heart imaging such as an echocardiogram (ECG), stress test, or coronary angiogram.

What Causes Bradycardia and Tachycardia?

Just as bradycardia and tachycardia can have similar symptoms, they can also have similar causes. For example, having an imbalance of chemicals in the blood, such as potassium, calcium, or sodium, can cause either a slower-than-normal or faster-than-normal heartbeat. Additionally, a thyroid disorder, a lung disease, or a previous heart infection can result in a slower or faster-than-normal heartbeat.

Bradycardia can also be a result of a heart disorder you've had since birth (congenital defect), a result of having trouble breathing while you're asleep (sleep apnea), or as a side effect from medication you're taking. Tachycardia can also be a result of high blood pressure, chronic emotional stress or anxiety, or lifestyle factors such as drinking or smoking.

Qualifying for Disability Based on Bradycardia or Tachycardia

The Social Security Administration can find you disabled "medically" or "vocationally." Medical disability means that your medical record includes symptoms or test results that Social Security has already determined are enough to find you disabled under its "listing" of disorders. On the other hand, if you're approved through a "vocational allowance," that means Social Security has found that your particular limitations make it impossible for you to do any job.

What Evidence Should You Have Before You Apply for Disability Benefits?

First, if you want to have your best chance at qualifying for disability benefits, it's important that you've visited the doctor and you're able to provide your medical records. Social Security will expect to see at least one of the following in your medical record:

  • echocardiogram (ECG or EKG): This is a device that records the electrical activity in your heart and helps your doctor search for things that don't look normal.
  • exercise stress test: This is a test where you walk on a treadmill while your doctor monitors your heart activity. It lets your doctor see how your heart functions while it's working hard during exercise or when medication is given to make it beat fast.
  • tilt table test: This test is used to see how your slow or fast heartbeat contributes to fainting spells.
  • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): Pictures are taken of your heart to see how the blood is flowing through it.
  • Doppler test: This test uses ultrasound to estimate the blood flowing through your vessels by bouncing sound waves off of circulating blood cells.
  • coronary angiography. This procedure uses X-rays to see your heart's blood vessels.
  • cardiac catheterization. Your doctor will place a thin tube (catheter) in your blood vessels to check on your heart.

If these tests and procedures reveal you have severe limitations, you may be able to qualify for disability medically. Even if these tests don't prove that you're disabled under a listed impairment, having them can be very useful for finding that you're disabled "vocationally"—meaning you're unable to work at any job.

Qualifying Medically Under the Listings for Cardiovascular Disorders

It's not easy to meet the requirements of one of Social Security's medical listings. And having test results that support a diagnosis of bradycardia or tachycardia is generally not enough for the Social Security Administration to find you disabled under a listing. But if your medical record contains additional documentation showing that your heart is functioning exceptionally poorly, you may qualify for disability under one of Social Security's listed cardiovascular disorders.

Here are some examples:

  • If you're frequently hospitalized for cardiac failure due to ventricular tachycardia, Social Security may find that you're disabled under the listing for chronic heart failure (CHF). (The listing for CHF requires you to have imaging showing your heart is pumping abnormally and/or that your heart walls have thickened.)
  • If you have angina along with tachycardia, you may be able to get benefits under the listing for coronary artery disease (certain exercise tolerance tests will meet the listing for ischemic heart disease).
  • If your irregular heartbeat is causing you to faint (called "syncope") or almost faint ("near-syncope"), even though you are following your doctor's recommended treatment, Social Security may find that you're disabled due to arrhythmia (a problem with the rhythm of your heartbeat). (The listing for recurrent arrhythmias requires an EKG showing that your fainting is related to the arrhythmia.)

Qualifying Vocationally: Getting Benefits If You Don't Meet a Medical Listing

Bradycardia and tachycardia can affect every person differently. You may have moderate symptoms that you're able to manage with diet and medication. Or you may experience symptoms that are more difficult to manage and affect your ability to work. If Social Security finds there are no jobs available (anywhere in the country) that you can do with your limitations, the agency can find you disabled "vocationally."

Your "activities of daily living." To figure out if you can work any jobs, Social Security will be interested in the ways that your symptoms interfere with your activities of daily living ("ADLs"). Social Security asks about your ADLs because it makes sense that something you have difficulty doing at home would be something you would struggle with at work. For example, if you feel shortness of breath after walking to the mailbox and back, it makes sense that you'd struggle to do a job where you'd have to walk around all day. Or if you forget things on your grocery list because you have difficulty with your memory, you probably wouldn't do well at a job where you had to keep track of inventory.

Your residual functional capacity. You aren't expected to do a job that's beyond your capabilities, mentally or physically. The process Social Security uses to figure out what you can and can't do in a work setting is called assessing your "residual functional capacity" (RFC). Your RFC is a list of the most intensive work you can do despite your limitations. For instance, if you have severe bradycardia, your RFC might say that you can't drive, that you can walk no more than two hours a day, and you need to take a break once an hour.

To prove there are no jobs within your capabilities, you must first show that your current RFC prevents you from returning to any of the jobs you have performed in the past. Next, depending on your age, education, and skills, you will also likely have to show that there are no other jobs that are less demanding, physically or mentally, that you could do. For more information, see our article on how to get approved for disability benefits vocationally.

How Do I Apply for Disability Benefits for Bradycardia or Tachycardia?

An easy way to start your disability application is to file online with the SSA. You don't have to finish the application all at once; just make sure that you keep track of the application number given to you when you start the application so you can access it again if you need to come back to it.

You can also apply for disability benefits by phone by calling 800-772-1213 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.

Finally, you can apply for disability benefits in person at your local Social Security field office. You can locate your field office here.

If you'd like help with your application, think about working with an SSDI law firm. According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time. For more information, see our article on hiring a disability lawyer or nonattorney advocate.

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