Can I Get Social Security Disability for Restless Leg Syndrome?

Restless leg syndrome alone rarely qualifies for disability benefits. But if you fall asleep during the day due to RLS or PLMS, you may be able to get benefits.

By , J.D. · University of Virginia School of Law
Updated 3/04/2024

Those who suffer from restless leg syndrome (RLS) feel odd sensations in their arms or legs and have uncontrollable urges to move to relieve the feelings. RLS is a neurological disorder that's been linked to various other medical problems, such as:

For some, restless leg syndrome worsens over time, while others experience remissions (periods of no symptoms). Severe RLS can cause symptoms like weakness, incontinence, temporary leg paralysis, and chronic pain. In addition, some of the drugs used to treat RLS can cause side effects.

To get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits for restless leg syndrome, you'll need to work your way through the disability determination process.

Is Restless Leg Syndrome a Disability?

Restless leg syndrome isn't included in Social Security's list of impairments. But that doesn't mean you can't get SSDI or SSI based on RLS. Many people with medical conditions that aren't listed still qualify for disability benefits. Under Social Security rules, a severe, medically determinable impairment (see below) that prevents you from working is a disability.

But you aren't likely to qualify for Social Security disability benefits unless you have a severe case of RLS. Moderate or intermittent RLS won't meet Social Security's requirement that your condition significantly limits your ability to work for at least 12 months.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) uses a different definition of disability. And the ADA doesn't have a list of conditions that qualify as disabilities. Instead, the law defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. (29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(g).) Sleeping and concentrating are examples of major life activities, so if RLS substantially limits your ability to sleep or concentrate, it qualifies as a disability under the ADA.

Learn more about your protections under the ADA.

Is RLS a Severe, Medically Determinable Impairment?

To qualify for disability benefits, you must have what the Social Security Administration (SSA) calls a severe "medically determinable impairment." That's an impairment that can be diagnosed according to objective criteria.

But there's no medical test for restless leg syndrome. Instead, your treating physician will base a diagnosis on a list of recognized RLS symptoms, including the following self-reported symptoms:

  • irresistible urges to move your legs (or arms) during periods of rest
  • pain, pricking, or numbness that often accompanies the urge to move
  • needing to move the affected limbs to bring temporary relief, and
  • symptoms that worsen at night and aren't usually present during the day.

Because of the lack of objective testing for restless leg syndrome, it can be difficult to prove to the SSA that you have a severe medically determinable impairment (MDI).

Many people with RLS also suffer from involuntary leg or arm movement during sleep, which doctors call "periodic limb movement of sleep," or PLMS, which can also interfere with sleep and cause daytime fatigue. A sleep study can provide objective evidence of PLMS and a medically determinable impairment.

Is There a Listing for Restless Leg Syndrome?

If Social Security decides you have a severe MDI, the agency will check to see whether your impairment meets the requirements of a listed impairment. There's no listing for restless leg syndrome, but if you have another impairment besides RLS, your RLS symptoms might help you meet or "equal" another listing.

If your only impairment is RLS, Social Security will likely have to look at your "residual functional capacity" (RFC) to decide whether you qualify for disability benefits based on a medical-vocational allowance.

Residual functional capacity is the physical and mental capacity you have after considering the limitations caused by your impairments. It's the most you can be expected to do, given your condition. Social Security will use your RFC to decide whether you can still do any type of work or if you're disabled.

Social Security will compare the restrictions in your current RFC with the physical and mental requirements of your past jobs to see if you can still do them. If not, the SSA will look for other jobs that you're able to do given your functional limitations.

How Social Security Creates Your RFC

Severe RLS can cause daytime symptoms like:

  • the inability to stay awake
  • memory problems
  • difficulty concentrating
  • depression
  • incontinence, and
  • hypertension.

In addition, the prescription medication used to treat RLS can cause nausea, lightheadedness, and sleepiness.

Your RFC will state how your capacity to work is affected by these symptoms and how the side effects of the medication you take affect your ability to work. For instance, if you suffer from fatigue that causes you to fall asleep during the day, your RFC might restrict you from jobs that involve operating dangerous equipment or driving. If your productivity decreases, such that you're only able to get 80% or 90% of your work done, Social Security might find that there are no jobs you can maintain.

But if your RLS symptoms don't carry over into the daytime (your work hours), your RFC won't show any limitations. And if you have no limitations, Social Security will find that you can still work, and you won't qualify for disability benefits.

RFC and the Medical-Vocational Grid Rules

In general, older disability applicants (over 50) with less education and work history find it easier to qualify for disability. That's because of Social Security's "medical-vocational grid." If you can't do your past work, then depending on your age (over 50), education, work history, and RFC, you might qualify for disability under the medical-vocational grid.

However, if you've completed high school and have job skills that you could transfer to another type of work, getting a medical-vocational allowance is more difficult because the grid rules don't apply. To qualify for disability as a more skilled worker, you'd need to show that you can't perform even sedentary (sit-down) work. But having severe RLS symptoms—like being unable to stay awake during the day—could help you show that you can't do even sedentary work.

Learn more about Social Security's grid rules.

Combined Effect of Physical and Mental Limitations

It's very difficult to qualify for disability for restless leg syndrome alone. But if you have RLS and another condition, Social Security must consider the combined effects of all your impairments on your ability to work.

So, for example, if you suffer from moderate to severe depression or anxiety—as many with restless leg syndrome do—you're more likely to qualify for disability benefits. Learn more about how moderate depression or anxiety affects a disability claim.

Evidence Needed to Prove You Can't Work Due to RLS

Social Security will decide whether or not your RLS qualifies you for disability benefits using the medical evidence in your file. Medical evidence can take many forms, such as:

  • doctor's examination and treatment notes
  • mental health records
  • laboratory blood panels, and
  • diagnostic imaging (like MRIs and X-rays).

To prove you're disabled, you'll need to provide Social Security with sufficient medical records that are recent (generally less than three to six months old) and based on objective medical sources. For instance, your doctor's opinion that your RLS is severely disrupting your sleep will carry some weight. But it will be more effective if it's based on the results of a sleep study.

Getting your doctor to provide a medical opinion on what you should refrain from doing because of your sleep apnea (and related disorders) can help your disability case. If Social Security thinks that your doctor's opinion makes sense considering your medical records, the agency will incorporate limitations from your doctor's opinion into your RFC.

Learn more about the medical evidence you need to prove disability.

How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits

You can apply for SSDI or SSI by phone by calling Social Security's national office at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778). Or contact your local Social Security office to make an appointment to apply in person. You can also apply for SSDI online.

You can start an SSI application online, but you must speak with a Social Security representative to complete your SSI application.

When you apply for benefits, Social Security will ask for some basic information, such as:

  • your Social Security number and contact information
  • your medical history (including your doctor's contact information), and
  • your work history (for the last 15 years).

Gather as much information as you can before you begin the application process. But don't delay filing, as Social Security will help you gather anything you're missing, and delaying your application can cost you benefits.

Learn how to determine the best time to apply for Social Security benefits.

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