Can I Get Social Security Disability for a Somatoform Disorder?

With a proper psychiatric diagnosis and documentation of your symptoms and limitations, you may be able to get disability benefits for somatoform disorder.

By , M.D.
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

People with somatic symptom disorder (also called somatoform disorder—this article uses both terms interchangeably) experience physical pain for which no cause can be identified. While establishing a diagnosis of somatoform disorder can be challenging, if you have well-documented symptoms that keep you from working full-time, you may qualify for disability benefits.

What Is Somatoform Disorder?

Somatoform disorder is characterized by physical symptoms that aren't intentionally produced and can't be fully explained. The exact cause of somatoform disorder is unknown, but doctors think that genetics and environmental factors play a role.

People with somatoform disorder may have the following symptoms, which typically get worse with stress and anxiety:

  • pain, numbness, and other abnormal sensations
  • gastrointestinal distress such as nausea or diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • abnormal motor movements
  • pseudoseizures, and
  • trouble with hearing or vision.

According to the National Institute of Health, people with somatoform disorders may experience and process pain differently than those without the disorder. Many people with the disorder are preoccupied with having a serious medical condition that hasn't been diagnosed yet.

Is Somatic Symptom Disorder a Disability?

Yes, when the disorder is severe enough to keep you from working full-time for at least one year. The Social Security Administration (SSA) can award you benefits in one of two ways—by finding that you meet the Blue Book listing for somatic symptom disorder, or by determining that your symptoms prevent you from doing any jobs.

Meeting the Listing for Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders

Social Security's "Blue Book" contains a list of impairments that the agency considers especially severe. If you have medical documentation of specific criteria stated in the listing, the SSA will award you benefits without having to decide whether you can work.

Somatic symptom disorder is a listed impairment. The criteria that the agency uses to evaluate somatoform disorder can be found under listing 12.07. You can meet the listing with evidence of one of the following:

  • symptoms of altered voluntary motor or sensory function that are not better explained by another medical or mental disorder
  • one or more somatic symptoms that are distressing, with excessive thoughts, feelings, or behaviors related to the symptoms, or
  • preoccupation with having or acquiring a serious illness without significant symptoms present.

In addition to the above diagnostic criteria, the SSA also needs to see that your somatic symptom disorder causes an "extreme" limitation in one, or a "marked" limitation in two, of the following functional areas:

  • interacting with others (in socially appropriate ways)
  • concentrating on tasks (being able to finish work at a reasonable pace)
  • adapting or managing oneself (regulating one's emotions, adapting to changes, having practical personal skills like cooking, cleaning, wearing appropriate attire), and
  • learning, understanding, and remembering information (including following instructions and applying new knowledge to tasks).

Having an "extreme" limitation is worse than having a "marked" limitation. Whether your limitation is extreme or marked generally depends on how well you can perform the activity independently. Consider asking your doctor to write a letter to the SSA that describes the degree in which you're limited in the above areas.

Getting Disability When Your Somatic Symptom Disorder Doesn't Meet the Listing Requirements

Even if your somatic symptom disorder doesn't meet the requirements of listing 12.07, you can still win your case. You'll need to show that no jobs exist that you can do despite your somatic symptom disorder—in Social Security terms, you have a residual functional capacity (RFC) that rules out all work.

Your RFC is a set of restrictions on what you can and can't do in a work environment. Social Security looks at your medical records, doctors' opinions, and self-reported daily activities to determine what limitations should be included in your RFC. The agency then compares your RFC with the demands of your past work to see whether you could still do that job today and, if not, whether you could do any other jobs.

Medical consultants—doctors who work for Social Security—have input on what limitations should be included in your RFC, but you should have your regular doctor submit an RFC form as well.

It's important to make sure that your RFC accurately reflects all the restrictions you have, physical and mental, on your ability to work. (Remember that if the agency thinks you can still do your old job, or any other less demanding job, your disability claim will be denied.) The more limitations you have in your RFC, the more likely it is that no jobs exist that you can do.

What Do I Need to Get Disability For Somatic Symptom Disorder?

Because the symptoms of somatoform disorder are mostly subjective—meaning they don't show up on medical imaging or lab results—people with the condition may face an uphill battle getting the SSA to agree that they have a medically determinable impairment. So it's especially important to have a solid medical foundation when applying for disability benefits due to somatic symptom disorder.

Gather the Right Evidence

You'll increase your odds of winning if you provide extensive documentation of your struggles with, and treatment for, somatoform disorder. Make sure the SSA has the following information:

  • progress notes from your psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or therapist
  • a list of all the medications you take and any side effects you have
  • lab tests or other diagnostics that doctors have used to rule out other organic or physical cause of your symptoms, and
  • hospital admission and discharge records.

You may want to ask your friends, family, or even former employers to write a letter to the SSA explaining how your somatic symptom disorder affects your life. Helpful witness statements may convince a claims examiner or disability judge who is on the fence about your claim to award you benefits.

Make Sure the SSA Doesn't Think You're Malingering

"Malingering" is the medical term for faking or exaggerating symptoms, often for some material benefit. People with somatic symptom disorder can run the risk of being labeled as a "malingerer," due to the lack of objective evidence supporting their symptoms.

Fortunately, doctors can usually tell the difference between malingering and somatic symptoms, but not always. Typically, if a doctor thinks you're malingering, they will mention it in your clinical notes. If you don't have a mention of malingering in your record, you can breathe easier—but it's still a good idea to get your doctor to say in writing that you're definitely not malingering.

Avoid Accusations of Doctor Shopping

"Doctor shopping" involves going to multiple physicians looking for medications or trying to get a diagnosis that will help win a disability claim. The SSA frowns at doctor shopping, and if you've seen many doctors in a short period of time, the agency can view it in a negative light.

However, it's not unusual for people with somatoform disorders to see multiple physicians over several years in an effort to get a correct diagnosis or proper treatment for their symptoms. While this shouldn't be considered doctor shopping, the SSA may wrongly interpret it that way. You can avoid accusations of doctor shopping by making sure that you try and stay with one doctor as much as you can. Consistent treatment and a strong doctor-patient relationship are important factors in winning your claim.

Applying for Disability Benefits for Somatic Symptom Disorder

Social Security has several methods you can use to start your application for disability benefits:

  • Apply online at Social Security's website.
  • Call 888-772-1213, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, to speak with a representative. (People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.)
  • Go in person to your local Social Security field office.

With a somatic symptom disorder, you'll likely be denied benefits initially and need to appeal to an administrative law judge. Winning a disability hearing with somatic symptom disorder isn't easy, but it can be done. Consider speaking with an experienced disability attorney before you attend your hearing—our survey results show that your odds of winning increase considerably with representation.

Updated February 29, 2024

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