Getting Disability for Benign Brain Tumors

When benign brain tumors press on critical areas of the brain, they can cause disabilities.

By , Contributing Author

Brain tumors are masses of abnormal cells that occur in the brain and can be either benign or malignant. Malignant tumors are cancerous, while benign tumors are not cancerous.

Benign brain tumors generally are not aggressive (meaning quick growing) and usually do not spread into the surrounding tissues within the brain. Additionally, they are usually not located deep in the brain, which makes surgical removal of the tumor more likely. However, depending on the location and size of the benign tumor, they can be very serious and even life threatening. Tumors can press on parts of the brain that control various functions throughout the body.

Symptoms of Benign Brain Tumors

Symptoms that are related to benign brain tumors depend on the location of the tumor. Some tumors have no symptoms initially and others have symptoms that develop slowly. The most common initial symptom of a brain tumor is a headache that will not respond to the usual remedies (such as over the counter headache medications).

Symptoms depend on what parts of the brain the tumor is pressing on and may include:

  • nausea
  • vision and/or hearing problems
  • change in your sense of smell
  • difficulty walking and loss of balance
  • numbness/tingling in the arms or legs
  • weakness/paralysis in one part of the body
  • seizures
  • changes in personality
  • confusion and disorientation
  • difficulty with thinking and concentrating
  • speech problems, including difficulty finding words, and
  • memory loss.

Tumors without symptoms are generally discovered after the tumor becomes quite large and can cause serious health effects quickly.

If your symptoms are severe enough to prevent you from being able to work, you may qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Qualifying for Disability Benefits

There are three ways in which you can qualify for Social Security benefits.

Meeting a Listing. Social Security provides a listing of impairments that will automatically qualify you for disability benefits. The listings can be found in the Social Security "Blue Book." Each listing lays out detailed requirements that you must have in order to meet that listing. If you do not have all of the required elements, you must use another method to qualify for disability benefits.

Equaling a Listing. If you are unable to meet all the requirements of a given listing, but have an impairment that is very close to a particular listing, you may be able to "equal" a listing. To equal a listing, you must have an impairment that is similar to a listing and that is equal to that listing in both duration and severity.

Unable to work. Even if you do not meet or equal a listing, you may qualify for disability benefits if you can prove you are unable to do many work activities due to your impairment(s). Social Security will look at your physical, mental, and sensory abilities that impact your ability to work using the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment. Additionally, Social Security will consider your age, education level, and work experience in determining your ability to work based on your overall functioning level.

Meeting a Listing

There is a specific listing for benign brain tumors in the "Blue Book" under Listing 11.05. To meet the listing, you must have either:

  • The inability to control the movement of at least two extremities (either an arm and a leg or two arms or two legs), despite at least three months of treatment. This must result in extreme difficulty in the ability to balance while standing or walking, to stand up from a seated position, or to use the arms.


    • A "marked" physical problem along with a "marked" limitation in any one of the following:
      • thinking (understanding, remembering, or applying information)
      • interacting with others (social problems)
      • finishing tasks (problems with concentration, persistence, or speed), or
      • regulating emotions and controling behavior (such as problems with responding to demands, adapting to changes, and being aware of normal hazards).

    Note that marked means seriously limiting; it is worse than moderate, but less than extreme.

    You might also be able to meet the requirements of other listings due to specific impairments, including those for:

    Equaling a Listing

    If you do not meet the exact requirements of the above listings, you may be able to receive disability benefits by having a condition that is equivalent to that demonstrated in the listing. For example, if you suffer from seizures due to the benign brain tumor that significantly impact your ability to function but do not meet the frequency requirement under the listing, you may be able to show you equal the seizure listing.

    Unable to Work

    Those with benign brain tumors can have a wide range of symptoms and impairments, which individually or combined may make them unable to work.

    Physical impairments, including loss of balance, numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, and paralysis of one part of the body, can affect your ability to not only do physical work on a job, but may also affect your ability to perform even work while seated. If you cannot do desk work, such as filing or typing due to physical impairments, you will be more likely to be determined to be disabled.

    Mental impairments from benign brain tumors, including changes in personality and decreases in mental functioning and memory, can affect your ability to complete tasks at work and function appropriately within the workplace. When benign tumors press on certain areas of the brain, they can even cause pathologic laughter or "emotional incontinence," such as uncontrollable crying. This condition is formally known as "pseudobulbar affect," or PBA. Triggers for episodes of PBA include excessive fatigue, stress, worry, high stimulation, and even speaking on the telephone or speaking in front of people. PBA can cause significant limitations in the areas of interacting with others, the ability to tolerate stress, and being a distraction to others in the workplace.

    Sensory impairments, including changes in hearing and vision, as well as speech difficulties, can affect where you can work and severely limit the type of jobs that you may be able to perform.

    For more information on how Social Security evaluates how your limitations impact the types of work you can do, and when they make you disabled, see our section on how Social Security decides if you can work.

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