One of the first things the Social Security Administration (SSA) asks for on your disability application is a list of health issues that you're receiving medical treatment for (impairments in Social Security lingo). Disability applicants often have multiple impairments, but not all of them are serious enough to interfere with their daily activities for a significant amount of time.
Because some impairments are temporary or minor in nature, the SSA classifies impairments as severe or non-severe. Severe impairments can form the basis of a successful disability application ("claim"). Non-severe impairments aren't enough on their own to win a disability claim, but the SSA is required to consider them as part of the total combined effect on an applicant's ability to work.
A severe impairment is any medical condition that significantly limits your ability to perform work-related activities, such as:
Severe impairments can be physical, mental, or both, but they need to last at least 12 months (the durational requirement). The SSA doesn't provide "short-term" disability benefits, so any medical issues you have that resolve in under a year won't be considered severe.
A non-severe impairment is a medical condition that has only a minimal impact on your activities of daily living. Non-severe impairments are ones that you can generally recover from easily or with basic medical attention. To help visualize the differences, here are some examples of severe and non-severe types of similar injuries or illnesses:
|Osteoarthritis in your foot||Twisted ankle|
|Major depressive disorder||Grieving the end of a relationship|
|Loss of visual field acuity||Myopia (nearsightedness)|
|Carpal tunnel syndrome||Pinky sprain|
Note that the non-severe impairments can be treated with readily available remedies such as bandaging, eyeglasses, and mental coping exercises. But the severe impairments often require greater intervention, including prescribed medications, surgery, or intensive therapy, making it more likely that they will significantly interfere with the ability to work full-time.
In order to win your claim for disability, you must have at least one severe impairment. Social Security won't award you benefits for a combination of non-severe impairments, so a claimant (applicant) applying because they have pinkeye, athlete's foot and a shellfish allergy isn't going to be found disabled.
But if this same claimant is over the age of 50, previously worked as a waiter, and also has a severe spinal disorder that makes it difficult to stand, having a shellfish allergy becomes more important because it can reduce—and even eliminate—the amount of jobs the claimant can safely perform. If the claimant can't use their skills in an environment that allows them to avoid shellfish, the SSA could find them disabled under the medical-vocational grid rules.
To determine whether you're disabled, Social Security first looks at your medical records and functional limitations in order to assess your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflect the most you're able to do, physically and mentally, in a work setting. The SSA doesn't expect you to do a job that's outside of the restrictions in your RFC.
Even though non-severe impairments can't be the only basis of a disability claim, the SSA must consider limitations from them in your RFC. All limitations, whether from severe or non-severe impairments, have to be documented in your medical record. Then the SSA decides the degree to which these combined limitations affect your ability to work.
For example, if you have anxiety around large groups of people (agoraphobia), the agency needs to see how intense your symptoms are to determine the extent of your limitations. Here's a chart illustrating a spectrum of symptoms and how the SSA might address them in your RFC:
|Symptoms||What the SSA Can Find|
|You avoid crowded concerts and mentioned this once during a doctor's visit.||Your agoraphobia isn't severe, but your RFC restricts you from working at stadiums or large public venues.|
|Your doctor prescribes you anti-anxiety medication but you still struggle with grocery shopping during normal hours.||Your agoraphobia is severe. In addition to not working at stadiums, your RFC limits the time you spend with the general public.|
|You take medication and have monthly therapy sessions but worry about leaving your house.||Your agoraphobia is severe. Your RFC prohibits you from any contact with the public, supervisors, or coworkers.|
|You're on strong medication and have video counseling every week. You don't leave your house, and you have groceries delivered.||Your agoraphobia is severe. Your RFC states that you'll miss several days of work per month.|
As you can see, having non-severe agoraphobia still means that you'll have restrictions in your RFC related to working with the public. These restrictions might not necessarily be enough to keep you from working at any job, but if your past work involved working with large crowds, the SSA is likely to find that you can't perform your past work. Depending on your age, education, and exertional level, that could be enough for the SSA to find that you're disabled.
Not all impairments are severe, and not all severe impairments are disabling. But your RFC will contain limitations from your combined impairments, and Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether you're disabled, by comparing it to the demands of your past jobs and any other jobs in the national economy. Being awarded disability benefits because no jobs exist that you can do is called a medical-vocational allowance.
If you're over the age of 50, non-severe impairments can play a larger role in your RFC than they would if you're younger. The closer you get to full retirement age, the less likely it is that the SSA will find that you can adjust to other work, so limitations from non-severe impairments that keep you from doing your past work become more important.
If you're under the age of 50, any limitations you have from non-severe impairments will still be considered when determining which jobs you can do, but it will be more difficult to show that the limitations rule out all work. This is because the SSA needs to see that claimants under the age of 50 aren't able to do even the least demanding jobs before the agency can find them disabled.
It's always better for your disability claim to have evidence of severe impairments than non-severe impairments. Social Security will generally give you the benefit of the doubt when determining how limiting your impairments are, but only to the extent that they're supported by the medical records.
You can help by diligently documenting your symptoms and following up with your doctor, including complying with recommended treatment. Provide the SSA with all the information the agency needs (like names, dates, and locations of medical providers) to obtain your medical records, such as:
Whether your impairment is severe or not depends on how seriously it affects your daily routine, so take time to thoroughly fill out your function report. The SSA only knows what you tell them about your symptoms or limitations, so even if you're struggling with something that you don't think is important, don't neglect to mention it.
While you aren't required to hire a lawyer to apply for disability benefits, winning your claim based on a combination of impairments can be difficult. Consider getting help from an experienced disability attorney or advocate. Your lawyer can increase your chances of getting your claim approved by gathering medical evidence, handling communications with the SSA, and representing you at a disability hearing.
You can find a disability lawyer or representative near you using our attorney locator tool here.
Updated November 23, 2022