Disability for Myasthenia Gravis: Benefits and Filing Information

If myasthenia gravis has severely affected the muscles you use for breathing, eating, talking, or walking, you are likely to be able to get Social Security disability benefits.

Myasthenia gravis (MG) is an autoimmune neuromuscular disease that affects the muscles in the body. It's a chronic disease that causes certain muscles to become very weak when they are being used for a period of time, but return to normal strength after being rested.

Disabling Symptoms of Myasthenia Gravis

The first signs of myasthenia gravis are usually slurred speech, problems swallowing, and weakness of the muscles around the eyes ("ocular MG"). Weakness in facial muscles can cause loss of eye control and eyelid movement, drooping of one eye, double vision, decreased ability to make facial expressions, and problems talking and chewing properly ("bulbar-onset MG"). Muscle weakness in the neck and chest can result in difficulty swallowing, breathing, speaking, and neck weakness. Other parts of the body that usually experience weakness include arms, hands, fingers, and legs.

In some instances, those with MG can experience "myasthenic crisis." This occurs when the respiratory muscles become paralyzed, requiring individuals to be put on breathing machines.

When You Can Get Disability Due to Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia can be fairly mild and controlled with medication or it can progress quickly to a disabling state. When myasthenia gravis begins to affect your muscles so much that you can no longer work, there are two ways you can be approved for Social Security Disability (SSD) or SSI benefits: you meet the requirements of the disability listing for myasthenia gravis, for automatic approval, or Social Security agrees that MG is affecting your muscle function so much that you can no longer do "substantial gainful activity," or "SGA." (SGA generally means work that earns you more than about $1,200 per month.) With either method, you need to show that your symptoms have continued after you took medication as prescribed, or followed other prescribed treatment procedures, for at least three consecutive months.

Meeting the Listing for Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis has its own disability listing in the Social Security listing of impairments that may qualify for disability. To prove you meet the requirements of the MG listing, you must have a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis and prove that you have one of the following:

  • The inability to control the movement of at least two extremities (arms or legs), resulting in extreme difficulty in one of the following abilities:
    • to balance while standing or walking
    • to stand up from a seated position, or
    • to use your arms.

OR

    • Weakness in the bulbar muscles that has caused either:
      • a myasthenic crisis that required mechanical ventilation, or
      • the need for supplemental nutrition, either via a gastric feeding tube or intravenously, via a central venous catheter.

    OR

    • A "marked" limitation in physical functioning and a "marked" limitation in mental functioning.
      • Having a marked limitation in physical functioning means being seriously limited in the ability to independently start, sustain, or finish any work-related activities. (Marked means worse than moderate, but less than extreme.) Work-related activities include the ability to use your arms and hands and the ability to balance, stand, and walk.
      • Having a marked limitation in mental functioning means being seriously limited in one or more of the following areas:
        • understanding, remembering, or applying information (the ability to understand instructions, remember procedures, learn new things, identify and fix problems, and use judgment in making decisions)
        • interacting with others (the ability to use socially appropriate behaviors, ask for help when needed, and respond to criticism without irritability or argumentativeness)
        • concentrating, persisting at tasks, or maintaining pace in performing tasks (the ability to complete tasks in a timely manner, avoid distractions while working, and sustain regular attendance), and/or
        • adapting or managing oneself (being able to respond to demands, adapt to changes, distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable work performance, and maintain personal hygiene).

    Gathering Medical Evidence to Meet the Listing

    Proving MG can be difficult because when patients' muscles are at rest, they don't generally have significant noted weakness; it's only after use that they become fatigued. For instance, in patients with bulbar-onset MG, the muscles used for chewing often become fatigued halfway through a meal. For this reason, it's important that your doctor brings your muscles to fatigue during testing and records the progressive weakness of your muscles.

    To fulfill the requirements of the listing, your medical records should include evidence such as

    • testing with electrical impulse machines to stimulate the muscles, showing the extent of weakness
    • pulmonary function tests to measure breathing
    • muscle biopsies, and
    • physical examinations using physical endurance tests, leg raises, and/or grip strength tests.

    In addition, some patients with MG have lengthy periods of remission, with very few symptoms, followed by exacerbations, with great muscle fatigue. However, Social Security is aware that MG can be episodic, so it will consider the frequency and duration of exacerbations and how long periods of remission last.

    Showing Loss of Ability to Do Substantial Gainful Work

    Some patients with myasthenia gravis won't meet the criteria in the above listing because they don't have problems swallowing, breathing, talking, or walking, or their doctor hasn't recorded a level of weakness in their arms or legs that Social Security considers significant enough. These patients may nevertheless have limitations that prevent them from successfully returning to work and being able to work enough to earn at least $1,200 per month.

    If you don't "meet the listing," Social Security will review your medical record for limitations that your doctor has documented and will gather them into a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment. Your RFC shows which work activities and jobs you have the ability to do, if any.

    Due to muscle fatigue in the legs and/or arms, MG can limit any type physical activity. Specifically, if you have weakness in your legs, walking or standing for long periods of time is difficult, which would limit you to sedentary (sit-down) work. Weakness in your arms, hands, or fingers makes completing tasks using your fingers difficult, which could rule out any sedentary work, or at least would rule out light or medium work that requires lifting or carrying items.

    If MG has affected your eyesight or your speech, this rules out many jobs that require good vision or communication, such as working with machinery, driving, working with the public, and so on.

    With MG, patients can often do some work, but need frequent rest breaks due to their easy fatigability. If you can complete some tasks required by a job, but your productivity is decreased by 20% or more due to your MG, Social Security is supposed to grant you disability benefits on that fact alone. You should record how easily your muscles are fatigued by keeping an activity diary, where you take notes on how many minutes of an activity, including speaking, weakens your muscles, and submit it to Social Security with your application or appeal. (For more information, see our article on qualifying for disability due to reduced productivity.)

    After your RFC assessment, Social Security decides whether, given the work activities that your RFC says you are limited to doing, there are any jobs you can be expected to do, also taking into account your job experience, education, and age. For information on how the agency makes this decision, see our article on how Social Security uses the RFC to decide if you can work.

    How Can I Apply for Disability Benefits Based on MG?

    If you're applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you can file your whole claim online on Social Security's website. Most individuals filing for SSI only can't file the entire application online, but they can get started on Social Security's website. If you're not comfortable online, call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to start your claim. You might also be able to contact your local field office for an in-person appointment (use the Social Security field office locator and enter your zip code to find your local field office). For more information on applying for either SSDI or SSI, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.

    If you'd like help with your application, think about working with an SSDI expert. According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time. Click for a free case evaluation with a legal professional to determine if your MG qualifies for benefits.

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