Sleep is an essential function, allowing your body and mind to recharge. Not getting enough sleep can result in poor coordination, reduced attention span, lack of energy, and difficulties with concentration and memory.
Most people experience occasional bouts of sleep deprivation in response to common life events like personal troubles or stress at work. But severe, chronic insomnia can hurt your immune system and put you at risk for additional health issues, such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression.
Chronic insomnia is the medical term for a long-term pattern of difficulty sleeping, defined as having trouble falling or staying asleep at least three nights a week for three months or longer.
Chronic, severe insomnia can be primary, meaning that your sleep problems aren't the result of another illness, or secondary, meaning that your insomnia is the symptom of an additional underlying condition. The causes of primary insomnia aren't well understood, but secondary insomnia can often resolve with treatment of the condition that's causing the sleep deprivation.
Insomnia is mainly characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, but disruptive sleep patterns can impact other body systems and cause additional symptoms, including:
Treatment for chronic, severe insomnia frequently involves a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and improvements in your sleep hygiene (environment and daily routines that are best for healthy sleep patterns). Medications that can help with sleep onset and maintenance, such as melatonin, are sometimes also prescribed.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that symptoms of insomnia—such as impaired coordination, slowed reaction time, and fatigue—can prevent you from working full-time. Work that involves heavy machinery or driving will almost certainly be ruled out, but even easier, sit-down jobs with less risk of injury might be too challenging if you're too tired to concentrate on simple tasks.
Most disability applicants ("claimants") who are awarded disability benefits aren't found disabled based on insomnia alone. But because insomnia is often a comorbid condition—meaning that it exists at the same time as another disorder—the combined effects of insomnia and other impairments can be enough for the SSA to determine that you can't work.
When you submit an application for Social Security disability benefits, a claims examiner with Disability Determination Services (DDS) will review your file to determine whether you have one or more medical conditions that prevent you from working for at least twelve months. The examiner will then look to see if you have medical evidence of a condition that meets the requirements of a listed impairment that can qualify you automatically for disability benefits.
The SSA doesn't have a specific listing for insomnia, but the agency does have several listings for conditions that often cause or overlap with chronic insomnia. These conditions can include:
You can still qualify for benefits even if you don't meet the requirements of a listed impairment if you can show the SSA that you have a residual functional capacity (RFC) that rules out all jobs. Your RFC is a set of restrictions reflecting the most that you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment.
Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether you're currently able to perform jobs that you've done in the past. If you can't do any of your past work, then—depending on additional factors such as your age and education—the agency will determine whether you're able to perform any other jobs in the national economy. If your insomnia symptoms rule out all work, the SSA will approve your application for disability benefits.
The SSA provides several ways for you to start your application for disability benefits.
Consider contacting an experienced disability attorney or advocate for help with your disability claim. Your disability lawyer can help collect and submit your medical records, handle any communications with the SSA, and represent you at a hearing in front of an administrative law judge.
Updated November 29, 2022