Disability & Hydrocephalus: Social Security Benefits

When the symptoms of hydrocephalus can't be controlled with surgery, disability benefits may be available if you can't work.

Hydrocephalus is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the skull that causes the brain to swell. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is essential to the brain because it allows the brain to float within your skull, it cushions the brain if your head is jerked, it removes waste products of the brain, and it maintains constant pressure in the brain.

What Are the Different Types of Hydrocephalus?

The two types of hydrocephalus that affect adults primarily are hydrocephalus ex-vacuo and normal pressure hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus ex-vacuo is caused by damage to the brain from a stroke, accident, or other types of traumatic brain injury. Normal pressure hydrocephalus can occur in people at any age and is a slow moving, progressive buildup of fluid in the skull. The causes of normal pressure hydrocephalus can include head injuries, brain tumors, infections, or bleeding in the brain. Hydrocephalus can also be associated with Chiari malformations.

What Are the Symptoms of Hydrocephalus?

Symptoms that can be associated with hydrocephalus include headache, vomiting, blurred or double vision, problems with balance, coordination, and walking, nerve damage, urinary incontinence, fatigue, drowsiness, loss of memory, difficulty thinking, irritability, and changes in personality. Some of the symptoms may get better once the hydrocephalus is cured, while other impairments may permanently affect the individual.

If the hydrocephalus is not treated, symptoms can get worse over time. The severity of the impairment caused by hydrocephalus usually directly related to how bad the initial symptoms were and how long it took to get diagnosed and treated.

What Is the Treatment for Hydrocephalus Symptoms

The most common treatment for hydrocephalus is the surgical placement of a shunt, which is a type of drain that is placed in your brain to allow the fluid to drain properly. There are several complications that can occur: infections in the shunt can cause cognitive defects, neurological problems, seizures, and even death if not properly treated. Obstructions in the shunt and over drainage or under drainage of fluid through the shunt can lead to hearing loss, fatigue, severe headaches, muscle weakness, and loss of motor function. Hemorrhaging can also occur and may lead to severe neurological problems.

Is it Easy to Get Disability for Hydrocephalus?

You cannot get disability automatically for hydrocephalus because it is not a specifically listed condition in Social Security's "blue book" of listed impairments. But based on the impairments that can arise due to hydrocephalus or the causes behind the hydrocephalus, there are various disability listings that your condition may "meet" or "equal," including:

Neurocognitive disorders. Hydrocephalus can cause changes in your ability to think or remember things and your mood. The disability listing for neurocognitive disorders may apply if you have suffered a drop in IQ or changes in your mental or cognitive abilities that greatly affect your ability to function regularly. See our article on disability for neurocognitive disorders for more information.

Spinal cord disorders. Some disability applicants whose hydrocephalus is associated with a spinal cord injury or tumor may be able to get approved under the neurological listing for spinal cord disorders.

Stroke. Hydrocephalus can cause loss of motor function in any part of the body. The disability listing for central nervous system vascular incidents may apply if you have brain damage from the hydrocephalus that caused speech problems or difficulty walking or using your arms and hands. See our article on disability following stroke for more information.

Epilepsy. While hydrocephalus is not a common cause of epilepsy, shunts can cause seizures. The epilepsy disability listing may apply if you suffer seizures at least once a month with loss of consciousness, night seizures that affect your ability to function during the day, or seizures at least once a week that cause significant interference with daily activities. See our article on disability for seizures for more information.

Cerebral trauma. The disability listing for cerebral trauma uses the criteria from the above mentioned listings and may apply to impairments that are caused by hydrocephalus. See our article on disability for traumatic brain injury for more information.

Soft tissue tumors of the head and neck. Hydrocephalus is sometimes caused by tumors in the brain. The listing for brain tumors may apply if you have tumor(s) that are inoperable, do not respond to treatment, or have spread to other areas of the body.

Not Being Able to Work Due to Limitations

Many applicants with hydrocephalus will not meet one of the above listings and will have to show that the limitations caused by the condition make it impossible for them to do any type of work that they are trained for or could be trained for. A claims examiner who works for Social Security will look at the physical, mental, and sensory limitations caused by hydrocephalus to determine whether or not you can perform any type of work. The examiner will create an RFC (residual functional capacity) assessment for you that details your physical abilities, such as your ability to stand, walk, or carry; your mental abilities, such as your ability to complete tasks in a timely manner, get along with others, and respond appropriately to direction; and your sensory abilities, such as your ability to see and hear properly. Hydrocephalus can affect individuals in all areas:

  • Problems with balance, coordination, and walking, fatigue, muscle weakness, loss of motor function, and seizures can all affect your physical ability to work.
  • Difficulty thinking and loss of memory can affect your ability to be able to complete tasks.
  • Changes in personality and irritability may affect your ability to properly respond to supervision and stress at work, as well as interacting with co-workers.
  • Hearing loss and blurred or double vision are sensory limitations that can affect your ability to work any type of job.

For more information on how RFCs are used in determining whether you can perform any type of work, see our article on how RFCs determine disability.

If you don't qualify for Social Security Disability benefits initially, as is true for most people, you may either reapply or appeal for disability benefits if your condition becomes worse, as is often seen with hydrocephalus. At this point, you may want to consider having a disability attorney help you.

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