Getting Disability for Spinal Cord Injury or Paralysis

Many, but not all, individuals with spinal cord injuries are automatically eligible for Social Security disability benefits.

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Most severe spinal cord problems seen on Social Security disability applications are caused by trauma, such as injuries from automobile accidents. Other possible causes of spinal cord injury (SCI) include many kinds of infection, tumors, inflammatory diseases, and genetic and congenital disorders.

Protected by the bony spine, the spinal cord carries the nerve fibers through which the brain interacts with the rest of the body. The top of the spinal cord originates in the lower part of the brain and then gives off right and left pairs of nerves at regular intervals as it goes down into the lower back. These peripheral nerves from the spinal cord carry out three major functions:

  • carrying motor impulses to muscles to allow movement
  • carrying sensory impulses from tissues to the brain, and
  • autonomic (unconscious) activity involving many types of tissue.

When a spinal cord injury causes damage to the nerve fibers, the muscles and nerves below the injury site can be impaired.

Social Security is less interested in the specific cause of a spinal cord problem than whether it produces a severe loss of function, as required by Social Security's disability listing for spinal cord disorders, and whether it is likely to last 12 months, the required minimum time to obtain disability benefits.

Social Security's Listing for Spinal Disorders

Social Security has a listing of impairments that sets out the criteria for certain conditions to be automatically approved for disability. Listing 11.08 is for spinal cord injuries. There are three ways to meet the listing, as follows, laid out from more severe to less severe (you need meet only one).

  • Complete loss of function of any part of the body because of spinal cord injury, such as paralysis of an arm or leg. Paraplegic and quadriplegic individuals should automatically qualify under this part of the listing. However, other kinds of complete functional loss that have nothing to do with muscle paralysis can also qualify. For example, spinal cord disorders can paralyze parts of the gastrointestinal tract, such as the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Some people with spinal injuries suffer complete loss of bladder function, and that would also automatically qualify for disability benefits.
  • Abnormal ability of movement in at least two extremities (either an arm and a leg or two arms or two legs) resulting in extreme difficulty in:
    • balancing while standing or walking
    • standing up from a seated position, or
    • using the arms and/or hands.
  • A significant (not extreme) physical problem due to a spinal cord problem combined with a serious limitation in any one of the following mental areas:
    • the ability to understand, remember, or use information
    • the ability to interact socially (including the ability to get along with others)
    • concentration, persistence, or the ability to work quickly (including the ability to complete tasks), or
    • the ability to take care of oneself (such as self-care activities) or adapt to new changes.

Whatever the type of functional loss or problems caused by a spinal cord disorder, it must be present at least three months for Social Security to assume it will last the required twelve months for an impairment to found disabling. Make sure that any difficulties you have are clearly documented in your medical records, which should also include neurological examination results and any imaging studies (MRI, CT scan) that you have had done.

Getting Disability for Less Severe Spinal Cord Problems

If your spinal cord problem is not severe enough to satisfy the spinal cord disorders listing above, Social Security will consider the medical limitations you have that can affect your ability to do your prior job—or any other job that's available. Since many claims are allowed on this basis, you shouldn't worry that you'll be denied benefits just because your impairments don't satisfy the listing.

You will be allowed disability benefits if Social Security can't come up with a job you can do within your limitations. The more severe your medical limitations, the more likely you will qualify. For instance, if you can't walk for at least two hours during a workday, Social Security considers that to rule out most jobs, so you should be approved for benefits.

Lesser limitations can have a big effect on your disability determination as well, especially when combined with your vocational factors (age, education, and work experience). For instance, an inability to stand or walk at least six hours a day will automatically reduce your RFC (residual functional capacity) level to sedentary work. This limitation could easily result in an approval for benefits if you are also age 55 or older (unless you are highly educated or you've done skilled jobs or sedentary jobs in the past).

The vocational analyses that Social Security does can be complex, so don't assume you know what limitations are important; what's important is that your treating doctor knows about all of your limitations, agrees with them, and includes them in your medical records.

Also, for many who have suffered spinal cord injuries, mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, can be an issue. Even moderate depression and anxiety can affect one's ability to begin and complete tasks, get along with others, and deal with stresses of work. If you list mental health issues on your application, Social Security will take them into account when deciding if there are any jobs you can do.

How to Apply for Disability for SCI

To apply for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you can file your entire claim online on Social Security's website. (For SSDI, you must have enough work credits to qualify.) If you're not comfortable filling out forms online, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to start your claim.

If you don't have enough work credits, you can still apply for SSI, as long as you have low income. Most individuals filing for SSI only cannot file the whole application online, but they can get started on Social Security's website. For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.

Updated April 23, 2021

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