Back problems, injuries, and disorders are some of the most common conditions that qualify disability applicants ("claimants") for Social Security benefits. While claimants with severe stenosis or nerve root compression might be awarded disability under Social Security's Listing of Impairments, most people who get benefits for back problems qualify because their reduced capacity to sit, stand, and walk prevents them from working at any job.
If your back condition prevents you from working full-time for at least twelve months, the Social Security Administration (SSA) can award you disability benefits. The agency will look at your medical records, doctors' opinions, and functional limitations in order to determine whether you can still do any jobs despite your reduced capacity for physical activities such as lifting or bending over. If you can't do any of the jobs you've done in the past, or any other, less demanding work, the SSA will find you disabled.
A Social Security disability claims examiner—with the help of a medical consultant—will review your medical records for evidence that illustrates how severe your back problems are. The SSA will be on the lookout for the following documentation:
The claims examiner will review your medical records as well as your activities of daily living to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflect Social Security's assessment of the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment. The SSA uses your RFC to determine whether you can do your past work or any other jobs in the national economy.
A typical RFC for a claimant with back problems will almost always include limitations on how much weight you can lift and how long you can be on your feet for. Social Security refers to these restrictions on basic physical activities as your exertional level. Your exertional level is defined by the types of jobs you could do within your limitations.
The SSA has five exertional levels that it categorizes as follows:
Most claimants with back problems will get an RFC with an exertional level for medium, light, or sedentary work, depending on how extensive their back condition is. For example, somebody with an X-ray showing mild degeneration in the cervical spine could get a restriction to medium work, while somebody with an MRI showing severe lumbar spondylitis might be restricted to sedentary work.
Your RFC will likely also include non-exertional restrictions on activities unrelated to lifting weight or standing up. Examples of non-exertional restrictions include:
Once the SSA has determined your RFC, the agency will look at your work history over the last 15 years and compare your current RFC with the physical and mental demands of your past jobs. For example, if your past jobs required you to lift and carry more than 75 pounds but your current RFC limits you to light work, Social Security will find that you can't do your past work.
Depending on non-medical factors including your age, education, and whether you have transferable skills, being unable to perform your past work can be enough for the SSA to find you disabled under the medical-vocational grid rules. Claimants who aren't found disabled according to the grid rules will need to show that no jobs exist that they can do with their reduced capacity.
Social Security doesn't expect you to do any jobs that are more demanding than your current RFC. For most claimants—particularly those under the age of 50—the agency wants to see that you can't perform even the easiest, sit-down jobs. In SSA lingo, this is called having an RFC for less than sedentary work.
Claimants with back problems have a lot of ways to show that they can't perform sedentary work. Usually, this involves combining exertional and non-exertional limitations to rule out all jobs. Common examples of limitations that eliminate sedentary jobs include:
Because the SSA sees so many applications for disability benefits based on reduced capacity from back problems, it can be difficult to stand out among other claimants. Consider hiring an experienced disability attorney to help you with your claim. A lawyer will know what medical evidence Social Security wants to see for your particular back condition, can help obtain a favorable medical source statement from your doctor, and will be able to represent you at a disability hearing.
Updated November 17, 2022