Can You Get Disability Benefits for Narcolepsy?

A good claim for Social Security disability benefits based on narcolepsy will raise the similarities between sleep attacks and dyscognitive seizures.

By , Attorney · Willamette University College of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law
Updated 1/25/2023

Narcolepsy is a nervous system disorder that causes daytime drowsiness and a strong feeling of needing to sleep. Narcolepsy type 1 is a rarer, more severe form of narcolepsy that includes cataplexy (sudden muscle weakness) and is linked to low levels of a brain hormone called hypocretin. People with narcolepsy type 2 don't experience cataplexy and usually exhibit normal levels of hypocretin.

Doctors don't yet have a cure for narcolepsy, but symptoms can sometimes be managed by scheduling naps or taking prescription medicine. Some people have symptoms of narcolepsy that persist despite treatment and can make it difficult to work safely.

Is Narcolepsy a Disability?

Narcolepsy isn't one of the listed impairments that the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers automatically disabling, so in order to get disability benefits for the disorder, you'll either have to show that your narcolepsy symptoms are functionally equal to a related listing —like the one for epilepsy—or that they're severe enough to prevent you from doing any job full-time.

How Do I Qualify for Disability Benefits for Narcolepsy?

People with narcolepsy might qualify for disability benefits if, despite treatment, their symptoms have kept them from working full-time for at least twelve months.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will evaluate your narcolepsy (and related disorders) for evidence of the following:

  • frequency and duration of "sleep attacks"—sudden, intense urges to sleep during the day
  • limitations in physical functioning due to cataplexy, and
  • limitations in mental functioning due to daytime "somnolence" (fatigue).

Since narcolepsy isn't a listed condition, the SSA will look at whether your narcoleptic symptoms are "equal to" a different impairment that is listed. In some cases, people with narcolepsy are awarded disability benefits because they equal the listing for epilepsy.

Getting Disability Benefits for Narcolepsy by Equaling the Epilepsy Listing

While narcolepsy and epilepsy aren't really comparable illnesses, the SSA acknowledges that the most severe cases of narcolepsy can share similarities with epileptic seizures. For example, if you're experiencing frequent sleep attacks, your condition may be found to be medically equal to having "dyscognitive seizures," which is one of the requirements of listing 11.02 for epilepsy.

Dyscognitive seizures are characterized by an altered consciousness involving staring blankly or repeating simple actions or phrases. If your sleep attacks occur at a frequency and severity comparable to a dyscognitive seizure, you could equal the epilepsy listing.

Your medical records will need to contain evidence of the following:

  • sleep attacks that are similar to dyscognitive seizures and occur at least once a week for three consecutive months, or
  • sleep attacks that are similar to dyscognitive seizures and occur at least once every other week for three consecutive months and cause a "marked" limitation in one of the following areas:
    • understanding, remembering, or using information
    • interacting with other people
    • maintaining focus and concentration, and
    • controlling emotions and behavior.

For more information on getting disability benefits for sleep attacks resembling dyscognitive seizures, see our article on disability for epilepsy.

Getting Disability for Narcolepsy Through a Medical-Vocational Allowance

Even if the SSA determines that your narcolepsy doesn't equal the epilepsy listing, that doesn't necessarily mean your claim will be denied. The agency has one more step it will go through to determine whether you qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

Social Security will look at all of the evidence in your file, which includes medical evidence and non-medical evidence (such as your function report or third-party statements from family and friends) to assess your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions on what you can and can't do at work.

Your RFC limits the types of jobs you're able to do safely. People with narcolepsy will typically have an RFC with the following restrictions:

  • no driving or operating heavy machinery
  • no climbing ladders, ropes, or stairs, and
  • no work around unprotected heights.

The SSA will look at the types of jobs you've done in the past and compare the demands of your past work with your current RFC to see if you could still do them today. Depending on your age, education, and past work experience, you may be able to qualify for benefits simply by ruling out your past jobs under the agency's medical-vocational grid rules.

If the medical-vocational grid rules don't apply to you (or you're under the age of 50), the SSA will need to determine whether any other jobs exist that you could safely do despite the restrictions in your RFC. For example, if your narcolepsy causes you to need frequent naps or unscheduled breaks, you might not be productive enough to maintain any type of full-time employment. By showing that your narcolepsy symptoms rule out all jobs, you'll be eligible for disability under a medical-vocational allowance.

What Evidence of Narcolepsy Should You Give to Social Security?

Your medical records are the foundation of your disability case. Make sure the SSA has the following evidence:

  • progress notes showing that you're consistently seeking and following your doctors' recommended treatment
  • medical source statements from your regular doctors explaining how long each sleep attack usually lasts and the number of sleep attacks you're having
  • medication lists showing any prescription drugs you're taking as well as any side effects you experience, and
  • results from any tests done, including ECGs, EEGs, polysomnograms (sleep studies), and the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).

Social Security will, with your permission, request records from any medical providers you've seen for conditions related to your disability application. If you change doctors, are hospitalized, or begin treatment for a new disorder, let the SSA know.

If You Need Help Applying for Disability for Narcolepsy

Applying for disability benefits can be a confusing and challenging process. Conditions such as narcolepsy often need special consideration because their disabling symptoms aren't always apparent. Consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney or advocate. Your lawyer can help gather medical evidence, handle communications with the SSA, and represent you at a disability hearing.

Many communities have legal aid or other services that provide assistance and resources for people applying for disability benefits. Your attorney will receive a one-time fee from your backpay (limited to a certain percentage) only if you win disability benefits.

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