Even if you have a severe, documented back problem, such as a herniated disc or scoliosis, it's difficult to get approved for disability benefits by the Social Security Administration (SSA) under its official impairment listings for spinal disorders. Meeting the requirements of the impairment listings requires your condition to fit into a small box of symptoms and objective test results showing either nerve root compression or spinal stenosis (for an overview, see our article on getting disability for back pain).
If Social Security denies that you have a spinal disability based on one of the musculoskeletal disorders listings, as the next part of the disability determination process, Social Security is required to consider the effect of your back pain and problems on your capacity to do daily activities and to function at work. The agency will then determine whether you can do your old job or if there is any less demanding work you can do.
Social Security will evaluate your treating doctor's records and imaging tests, and, in particular, his or her notes on your functional limitations and restrictions, to determine if your back problems rise to the level of a disability that prevents you from working.
A claims examiner at Social Security, with the help of a medical consultant, will review the functional restrictions your doctor has listed in your medical records. (Some common doctors' restrictions for back problems are "no lifting heavy objects," "no activities that require bending or twisting," and "no sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time.")
Based on your restrictions, Social Security will give you a rating of the type of work it thinks you can do: sedentary work, light work, medium work, or heavy work. This is called your residual functional capacity (RFC). For instance:
Most Social Security disability claimants who apply for back problems are assigned an RFC for light or medium work. You are likely to receive an RFC for light work, or medium work at the most, if you have any of the following symptoms:
Social Security will compare the requirements of your prior job to the level of your RFC to see if you can do your old job. If your job level was heavy work, but your RFC is for medium work (or your job level was for medium work, but your RFC is for light work), the agency will agree you can't do your prior job. Social Security will then determine whether there is other, less demanding work you can learn to do.
The lower your RFC (sedentary work being low, heavy work being high), the fewer types of other jobs you can do. Social Security will take your RFC and look at your age, education, and past job experience to see what kind of work you can do or could learn to do. For example, if you are limited to sedentary work, which basically means a desk job, Social Security agrees that you have to have the experience or education to be able to do that type of work. Social Security has developed a grid that sets out whether a claimant will be considered disabled based on the claimant's RFC, age, education, and prior work experience.
If Social Security has agreed you can't do your prior job because your RFC allows only less physically strenuous work, you could be automatically approved for benefits in some cases (especially if you're 55 or older). In many cases, however, you will be denied benefits if you have an RFC of medium or light work.
Medium work. If the SSA says you can do medium work, you won't be considered disabled unless you're 60 or older, have less than a 7th-grade education, and have only worked unskilled jobs (or you're 55 or older, have less than a 12th-grade education, and have never worked). If you fall into one of these categories, you'll likely be granted disability benefits under what's called a "medical-vocational allowance." In most other cases, if you can do medium work, Social Security will presume that you can learn a new job, even if you are used to doing heavy work.
Light work. If the SSA says you can do light work, you won't be considered disabled unless you're 55 or older and don't have any jobs skills from skilled work, or recent training, that could transfer to a new job.
For more information on the grid rules, see our section on grid rules by age.
If the SSA says you can do only sedentary work, you have a better chance of being found disabled. For example, if you are 55 and have worked heavy jobs all your life, you'll likely be approved for benefits. But if you are limited to sedentary work, you are 45 years old, and you have a college education or computer skills from a past job, Social Security will say that there are jobs you can do or learn to do (even if you've never done sedentary work), and Social Security will deny you benefits.
It's in your best interests to prove that you can do only sedentary work—or even "less than sedentary" work—because of your back problems. A sedentary RFC means that it's less likely Social Security will say there are any jobs you can do, depending on your age, education, and experience. You can get a sedentary RFC if your doctor says you can't stand or walk at least six hours per day.
In addition, you won't be able to do most sedentary jobs, meaning you may be able to get a "less than sedentary" RFC, if any of the following apply:
A less than sedentary RFC is likely to get you a medical-vocational allowance regardless of your age, education, or past experience; however, getting less than sedentary RFC is fairly rare, and requires objective medical evidence, such as an MRI, of a severe, long-term back problem. (For more information, read our article on less than sedentary RFCs.)
Because Social Security disability benefits (SSDI and SSI) aren't easy to get for back problems, you may want to hire an attorney to help you. Social Security sees thousands of claims for back pain every year and denies most of them. Especially if you are initially denied benefits, it makes sense to hire an attorney with experience with back cases. An attorney will know what test results and other evidence Social Security wants to see for your particular back condition, and, assuming your doctor agrees that you should have serious restrictions on what you can do, your attorney will know what questions to ask your doctor to help you get a low RFC.
Updated April 26, 2021