When the Social Security Administration (SSA) reviews your application for disability benefits, the agency looks at your functional limitations in order to prepare a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment. Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflects the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment.
Each disability applicant ("claimant") will have an RFC that's tailored to their medical conditions and the specific limitations they cause. Many claimants apply for benefits due to multiple conditions that cause both exertional and non-exertional limitations. Having both kinds of limitations in your RFC means that you'll have an easier time showing Social Security that you can't do any jobs.
Exertional limitations are strength-related restrictions on your ability to work full-time. Specifically, exertional limitations affect how you can perform the following tasks:
For claimants with physical conditions, exertional limitations are the foundation of their RFC. Social Security uses your exertional limitations to decide what types of physically demanding jobs you can do. The SSA classifies all jobs according to the following five exertional levels:
If you can perform work at a particular exertional level, the SSA assumes that you can work at all less strenuous exertional levels as well. For example, if your doctor says that you can't lift more than 20 pounds due to a shoulder injury, the SSA will give you an RFC for light work. So if you never lifted more than ten pounds at your old work (a sedentary job), the agency will find that you can return to your past jobs—because they're at a lower exertional level than your current RFC. You'll need to have additional, non-exertional limitations to rule out your past work.
Non-exertional limitations are restrictions in your RFC that aren't strength-related, but still affect your ability to work. Examples of non-exertional limitations include:
Keep in mind that the SSA needs to see medical documentation of every limitation, both non-exertional and exertional, in order for those limitations to become a part of your RFC, so make sure you provide the agency with all your medical evidence.
Getting benefits based only on exertional limitations can be difficult, because the SSA usually finds plenty of jobs that you can do within a specific exertional level. If you're limited to light work and don't have any additional limitations, for example, Social Security is likely to find that you can work as a cashier—a job title with over a million positions nationwide.
However, it's rare that a disability claimant won't have any non-exertional limitations in their RFC. The agency is required to consider the combined effect of your limitations when determining whether you're disabled, and symptoms such as chronic pain can have a significant impact on your ability to reach, bend, and concentrate.
The SSA classifies your past work according to exertional level and skill level. If your past work is at the same exertional level as your current RFC, but you have additional non-exertional limitations that keep you from doing your job, you can use those non-exertional limitations to rule out your past work.
In the above example, even though the claimant's exertional limitations didn't rule out her past work, when her non-exertional limitations were considered, the SSA determined that she couldn't do her old job. Depending on your age, education, and whether you have any transferable skills, ruling out your past jobs could be enough to get disability benefits under the medical-vocational grid rules.
Another way that you can combine exertional and non-exertional limitations to qualify for benefits is by showing that your limitations, in total, prevent you from performing any jobs. For claimants under the age of 50, this is by far the most common way of getting approved for benefits.
Mental limitations, for example, are frequently combined with exertional limitations to rule out all work. Because even the easiest, least physically demanding jobs still require you to show up and complete your duties on time, if you have mental limitations that reduce your productivity below what employers will tolerate, the SSA will find that you can't do any work.
Other non-exertional limitations that can rule out all jobs can include:
In Social Security lingo, such limitations "erode the occupational base" to the extent that they are "inconsistent with competitive employment." For more information, see our article on getting disability by arguing that you can't even do a sedentary job.
Most disability claimants who get benefits win their case after a hearing with an administrative law judge. But having a successful hearing means you'll need to know how to answer the judge's questions and cross-examine the vocational expert helping the judge decide whether you can work.
Consider hiring an experienced disability attorney to help you through the disability determination process. Your lawyer can gather medical evidence supporting your limitations, ask your doctor for a useful opinion, submit a pre-hearing brief on your behalf, and represent you at a hearing.
Updated March 22, 2023