Disability Benefits for Reduced Capacity Caused by Back Problems

If your back problems reduce your capacity to sit, walk, and bend to the point where you can't work, you may qualify for disability.

By , Attorney

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.

Can You Get Disability for Reduced Capacity Caused by Back Problems?

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.

How to Qualify for Disability Based on Reduced Capacity Caused by Back Problems

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:

  • objective imaging such as X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans that show the extent of your back problem (such as whether it's mild, moderate, or severe)
  • physical examinations showing limitations in your ability to move ("range of motion")
  • progress notes containing your doctors' observations and recommendations on how to treat your back problem
  • a list of prescribed medications and any side effects you have as a result
  • admission and discharge notes from any hospitalizations you've had, and
  • your doctor's opinion on what activities you should avoid doing.

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.

What Is the Process of Getting Disability for Reduced Capacity Due to Back Problems?

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:

  • Sedentary work means that you can stand and walk no more than two hours out of an eight-hour day, and you can't lift more than 10 pounds occasionally or five pounds frequently.
  • Light work means that you can stand and walk no more than six hours out of an eight-hour day, and you can't lift more than 20 pounds occasionally or 10 pounds frequently.
  • Medium work means that you can stand and walk no more than six hours out of an eight-hour day, and you can't lift more than 50 pounds occasionally or 25 pounds frequently.
  • Heavy work means you can stand and walk enough to do medium work, but that you can lift up to 100 pounds occasionally and 50 pounds frequently.
  • Very heavy work means that you can stand and walk enough to do heavy work, but that you can lift more than 100 pounds occasionally and more than 50 pounds frequently.

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:

  • Manipulative limitations restrict how often you can use your arms, hands, and fingers to reach, grab, and move objects. Your RFC might contain manipulative limitations if you have cervical spine problems that cause radiculopathy in your upper extremities.
  • Postural limitations restrict the amount of bending, stooping, crouching, and crawling you can do. Slipped discs in the thoracic or lumbar spine often result in postural limitations.
  • Mental limitations restrict the types of tasks you're able to perform and whether you can perform them with other people. Pain from your back condition or side effects from your medications that have an impact on your mood and concentration can result in mental limitations.

Does Your Reduced Capacity Keep You From Doing Your Past Work?

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.

Can You Do Other, Less Demanding Jobs With Your 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:

  • being unable to stand or walk for longer than two hours total in a workday
  • needing to elevate your legs, recline, or lie down in order to reduce pain in your back
  • having difficulty raising your arms above your head or reaching in front of you
  • needing to frequently alternate between sitting and standing
  • being restricted in using your hands or fingers to move small objects
  • missing too many days of work or taking too many breaks, and
  • having reduced productivity due to poor concentration and focus.

Legal Representation Can Help You Get Disability Benefits

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

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