Can I Get Disability if Piriformis Syndrome Makes It Impossible for Me to Do My Job?

If your doctor has limited the amount of time you can sit or stand, and you are older, you have a chance of getting disability benefits for piriformis syndrome.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Piriformis syndrome is a neuromuscular disorder that affects the piriformis muscle (in the hip/gluteal region near the lower back) and the sciatic nerve. Your piriformis muscle flexes and contracts during lower body movements, like walking, standing, and rotating your hips.

A tight piriformis muscle can compress or irritate the sciatic nerve, which runs from your lower back down the back of each leg. Compression of the sciatic nerve can cause pain, tingling, and numbness from your lower back and hips down to your lower leg. Symptoms are usually limited to one side of the body, but not always.

Shooting, burning, or aching pain along the path of the sciatic nerve (commonly called sciatica) is the primary symptom of piriformis syndrome. Other symptoms can include:

  • tenderness or a dull ache in your buttock
  • tingling or numbness in your hip, buttock, or the back of your leg
  • reduced range of motion in your hip
  • tightness in the iliotibial (IT) band
  • knee pain, and
  • difficulty sitting.

Piriformis syndrome symptoms can be aggravated by the following:

  • sitting
  • walking
  • running
  • climbing stairs
  • other physical activities, and
  • inactivity (staying in the same position for too long).

When pain makes it difficult to stand, walk, or sit for very long, it can significantly affect your daily functioning, including your ability to work. If you can't work due to a medical condition, even after treatment, you might qualify for disability benefits.

Treatment of Piriformis Syndrome

Several treatments are used for piriformis syndrome. Treatment usually begins with avoiding activities or positions that trigger the pain, along with icing and applying heat to the sore muscle. Your doctor might also prescribe physical therapy to reduce the tightness and nerve compression.

If physical therapy and rest don't work, your doctor might try to reduce your pain using one or more of the following:

  • anti-inflammatory medications
  • muscle relaxants, or
  • corticosteroid injections.

Other options are iontophoresis, which is when a mild electrical current is placed into the muscle, and botulinum toxin (Botox) injections to loosen the muscle. If all else fails, in rare situations, your doctor might use surgery to separate the piriformis muscle from the sciatic nerve.

While the symptoms of piriformis syndrome generally are alleviated with treatment, nerve pain can be difficult to treat at times.

Is Piriformis Syndrome a Disability?

If your symptoms are severe and don't improve with treatment, your piriformis syndrome might be considered a disability. And if you have pain that's so severe that you can't do your job, you might be eligible for disability benefits.

For the Social Security Administration (SSA) to find you disabled and eligible for disability benefits, you must be able to show one of the following:

  • that your medical condition matches the requirements of an official disability listing in the Social Security "Blue Book," or
  • that you can't perform any job because of the restrictions caused by your condition.

Matching a Disability Listing With Piriformis Syndrome

If you can prove that your medical condition meets or "equals" one of the Blue Book listings, you'll qualify automatically for disability benefits. Unfortunately, Social Security has no specific disability listing for piriformis syndrome, so you can't meet a listing.

It would also be difficult to prove your condition is equal (in severity) to one of the disability listings, because the main impairment from piriformis syndrome is pain. While Social Security will consider pain in determining whether or not you can work, the disability listings require the existence of physical abnormalities, such as a shortening of the joint muscles or deformities. Without this type of physical impairment, you generally can't meet or equal a listing.

Getting Disability Because You Can't Work Due to Piriformis Syndrome

You can also qualify for disability benefits by showing that you're unable to work due to medical restrictions. In determining whether you can work, Social Security will complete a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment for you. The RFC evaluates many different aspects of the physical and mental abilities needed to successfully hold down a job.

For those with piriformis syndrome, your physical limitations will have the greatest impact on your ability to work. But pain can affect your mental abilities as well.

How Social Security Considers Your Abilities and Restrictions

Social Security will look at two different categories of physical abilities when considering if you can do your previous work. First the agency will look at exertional activities required for work, including your ability to:

  • lift and carry items
  • push and pull
  • stand
  • walk, and
  • sit.

The pain of piriformis syndrome might prevent you from being able to complete many exertional tasks. Your ability to walk and stand for long periods of time will probably be the most affected by a tight piriformis muscle.

Depending on your condition, your doctor might limit you to lifting no more than 20-30 pounds because straining your back muscles can aggravate the piriformis muscle.

Social Security will also look at non-exertional activities, including your ability to maneuver your body to crouch, stoop, or balance and to use your arms and hands to complete tasks. Depending on the level of your pain and issues with your lower back, the non-exertional activities of maneuvering your body (like stooping and crouching) might also be affected.

Your RFC will reflect the level of activities that you can do, as well as any medical restrictions. For instance, if your doctor has limited you to sitting no more than one hour at a time or requires you to change your position each hour, your RFC will include this functional limitation.

Your mental abilities are also assessed in an RFC, including your ability to do the following:

  • maintain concentration and focus at work
  • respond properly to supervision
  • interact appropriately with coworkers, and
  • handle different stresses that are present at work.

The constant or intermittent pain caused by piriformis trouble might affect your ability to concentrate on tasks. In addition, the frequent need to change positions to prevent pain might also affect your ability to concentrate and complete work tasks. Pain can also cause irritability that can make dealing with coworkers, supervisors, and work stresses more difficult.

Can You Perform Your Previous Work With Your RFC?

With the RFC completed, Social Security will assess whether or not you can do any of your previous jobs. (Social Security will look only at your past relevant work—substantial work you did for income within the last five years.) The agency will compare the limitations in your RFC with the requirements of your previous jobs.

Just because Social Security finds you can't do your prior work doesn't mean you're disabled. Social Security will next look at your ability to do some kind of less demanding work. For example, if you're a manual laborer who was injured and you can no longer lift heavy items, you may be able to perform a job that requires only light lifting.

How Social Security Decides Whether You Can Perform Other Work

For many disability applicants, the standard type of work that Social Security uses when determining whether you can do any work is "sedentary work," meaning work that requires occasional walking and standing and the ability to carry only ten pounds or less, for eight hours per day, five days per week. (But if Social Security has given you a "light" RFC, the agency will assess your ability to do light jobs.)

Social Security will compare the tasks required for many different types of sedentary or light work against your RFC to see whether there are any jobs that fit within your restrictions.

For those with piriformis syndrome and a sedentary RFC, the inability to sit for extended periods of time would be a major obstacle in finding sedentary work that requires sitting for six to eight hours a day. (Learn more in our article on getting disability when you can't do sedentary work).

In determining whether you can do any kind of work with your impairment, Social Security will consider vocational factors, including your:

  • Age. Social Security considers applicants 55 and over to have significant limitations on their ability to transition to a new type of work.
  • Education. Social Security considers your level of education and any special job training you have in deciding whether you have or could learn the job skills needed to do other work. Illiteracy is considered a significant limitation on the ability to work.
  • Work experience. Social Security looks at your previous work experience and transferable job skills to determine your ability to do work you've never done before. For example, Social Security may presume a mechanic can do other mechanical-based jobs even though physical limitations prevent working in a garage.

Generally, applicants who are younger with a high education level and skilled work experience will have greater difficulty showing that they can't do any kind of work. For more information, see our article on how Social Security decides if your restrictions rule out working.

If piriformis syndrome is your only medical impairment and you aren't over 55, qualifying for disability benefits will be challenging. You'll probably need to hire a disability attorney to represent you in your disability hearing to have a chance of winning disability benefits based on piriformis syndrome.

Medical Evidence Needed to Prove Piriformis Syndrome Is Disabling

To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must prove that you have a medically determinable condition that keeps you from working for at least 12 months. Social Security will use the medical evidence in your file to decide if your piriformis syndrome meets those requirements. Without sufficient, credible, and compelling evidence, you won't qualify for disability benefits.

You'll need to make sure Social Security sees all your medical records related to your piriformis symptoms (and any other impairments you have), including the following:

  • your doctor's diagnostic and treatment notes
  • physical therapy reports
  • surgery reports
  • information about all the medications you've tried
  • the side effects of medications you currently take, and
  • the results of any tests you've had, such as:
    • ultrasound
    • computed tomography (CT) scan
    • magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or
    • electromyogram (EMG) (which records electrical activity in muscles).

Your doctor's statements about the functional limitations that your piriformis syndrome causes—both your physical and mental limitations—are essential to your disability claim. Learn more in our article on the importance of getting your doctor's help with your claim.

How to Apply for Disability Based on Piriformis Syndrome

There are two types of disability benefits from Social Security you might qualify for:

You can start the application process for both types of benefits using Social Security's online application. If you're applying for SSI, you may need to work with a Social Security representative to complete the application process.

If you prefer, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. (local time) and make an appointment to apply by phone or in person at your local Social Security office. During your appointment, a Social Security representative will interview you and complete your application for you.

Learn more in our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits, including what you'll need to complete the process.

What's the VA Rating for Piriformis Syndrome?

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) categorizes piriformis syndrome as a neurological condition affecting the sciatic nerve. The VA uses diagnostic codes 8520, 8620, or 8720, depending on your symptoms, to rate piriformis syndrome. Although most veterans with piriformis syndrome will receive a VA disability rating of 10% to 40%, the rating could go as high as 80%. (38 C.F.R. § 4.124a.)

Of course, to receive VA disability compensation, you must be able to prove your piriformis syndrome was caused by (or made worse by) your military service. Learn more about proving your impairment is service-connected.

Updated May 6, 2024

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