Getting Disability for Benign Brain Tumors

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

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Bethany K. Laurence, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

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 aren't cancer.

Benign brain tumors generally aren't aggressive (meaning quick growing) and usually don't spread into the surrounding tissues within the brain. And surgical removal of the tumor is often possible because benign tumors aren't usually located deep in the brain (with some exceptions).

That's not to say benign brain tumors aren't serious health concerns. The tumors can press on parts of the brain that control various functions throughout your body. So, depending on the location and size of the benign tumor, they can be debilitating and even life-threatening.

Symptoms of Benign Brain Tumors

Some tumors have no symptoms initially, and others have symptoms that develop slowly. Tumors without symptoms are generally discovered after the tumor becomes quite large and can cause serious health effects quickly.

The most common initial symptom of a brain tumor is a headache that won't respond to the usual remedies (such as over-the-counter headache medications). Other symptoms of a benign brain tumor can include:

  • changes in vision, hearing, or 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.

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 also known as "pseudobulbar affect," or PBA. Triggers for episodes of PBA include the following:

  • excessive fatigue
  • stress
  • worry, and
  • overstimulation.

Types of Benign Brain Tumors

The specific symptoms of a benign brain tumor will depend on the type of tumor and where it's located in the brain. Different types of tumors affect different types of brain cells, causing a variety of symptoms:

  • Meningiomas start in the protective cover around your brain and spinal cord and are the most common type of benign brain tumor. They usually don't cause symptoms unless they get large, and then symptoms range from headaches and seizures to speech problems and hearing loss.
  • Schwannomas start in the Schwann cells that surround the nerves in the brain. These are the most common benign brain tumors in adults and affect women twice as often as men. Symptoms can include hearing loss, dizziness, and loss of balance.
  • Pituitary adenomas start in the pituitary gland, which sits at the base of your brain. As many as one in five adults has tiny tumors on their pituitary glands, but most never grow or cause symptoms.
  • Hemangioblastomas start in blood vessels and can form in the brain, spinal cord, or the back of your eye (retina).
  • Craniopharyngiomas start at the base of the brain (near the pituitary gland). Part solid and part fluid-filled pockets (cysts), these tumors most often develop in children (ages 5 to 14) and adults over 45.
  • Gliomas start in cells that surround and support nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord (called glial cells). Gliomas can be slow-growing to very aggressive.
  • Pineocytomas start in the pineal gland, which sits in the middle of your head, surrounded by your brain. These rare tumors often develop in someone with hydrocephalus (fluid build-up in the brain).
  • Glomus jugulare tumors start in the tissue surrounding the nerves (ganglia) under the base of the skull (in a cavity between the temporal and occipital bones). These tumors are slow-growing and can affect the inner and middle ear.
  • Gangliocytomas start most often in the temporal lobe of the brain but can begin anywhere in the central nervous system, including the cerebellum, brainstem, and spinal cord. These rare tumors can cause seizures and are one type of tumor most commonly associated with epilepsy.

Qualifying for Social Security Disability Benefits

If the symptoms of your benign brain tumor are severe, you might qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. There are three ways in which you can qualify for disability benefits:

  • meeting a listing
  • equaling a listing, or
  • showing that you can't work because of your brain tumor.

Meeting the Disability Listing for Benign Brain Tumors

Social Security has a list of impairments (called the "Blue Book") that can be severe enough to qualify you for disability benefits automatically. Each listing lays out the requirements needed to meet that listing.

Benign brain tumors are included in the "Blue Book" under listing 11.05. To meet the listing, you must have either:

  • an extreme limitation in your ability to control the movement of both legs, both arms, or one leg and one arm that affects your ability to:
    • stand up from a seated position
    • balance while standing or walking, or
    • use your arms or hands, or
  • a "marked" limitation in physical functioning along with a "marked" limitation in any one of the following:
    • understanding, remembering, or using information for work activities
    • interacting with others (relating to and working with supervisors, coworkers, and the public)
    • focusing on your work and finishing tasks (problems with concentration, persistence, or speed), or
    • regulating emotions and controlling behavior (problems responding to demands, adapting to changes, or being aware of typical hazards).

Note that marked means seriously limiting—worse than moderate but less than extreme.

If your brain tumor is cancerous, Social Security will evaluate it under the listings for malignant neoplastic diseases. Learn more about getting disability benefits for brain cancer.

Equaling a Listing With a Benign Brain Tumor

If you can't meet all the requirements of a listing, you might be able to "equal" a listing. To equal a listing, you must have a similar impairment that's equal to the listing in both duration and severity.

For example, let's suppose you suffer from seizures due to a benign brain tumor. Your seizures significantly impact your ability to function but don't quite meet the frequency requirement under listing 11.02 (epilepsy). You might equal the severity of the listing if your seizures happen nearly as often and cause similar limitations in physical or mental functioning.

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

Proving You Can't Work Because of a Benign Brain Tumor

If you don't meet or equal a listing, you might qualify for disability benefits if you can prove that you can't work due to your impairments. Social Security will use a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment to determine how your ability to work is affected by your:

  • physical limitations
  • mental limitations, and
  • sensory impairments.

Benign brain tumors can cause a wide range of symptoms and impairments, which, individually or combined, can prevent you from working. The physical impairments caused by your brain tumor can impact your ability to work in different ways. They might involve any of the following:

  • difficulty balancing
  • numbness and tingling in your arms and legs, or
  • paralysis in one part of your body.

These challenges can affect your ability to do physical tasks at work and even your ability to work while seated (called sedentary work). If you can't do even sedentary work, like a desk job involving filing or typing, Social Security will likely find you're disabled.

Benign brain tumors can cause also mental impairments that can affect your ability to complete tasks at work and function in a work setting, such as:

  • changes in personality
  • decreases in mental functioning, and
  • memory problems.

If you're experiencing pseudobulbar affect, even speaking on the telephone or speaking in front of people can trigger a PBA episode. The uncontrollable laughing or crying of PBA can cause significant limitations in your ability to interact with others or tolerate stress. And it can cause you to become a distraction to others in the workplace, limiting the types of jobs you could do.

Finally, sensory impairments, including changes in vision, as well as speech difficulties, can affect where you can work and severely limit the type of jobs you might be able to perform.

For more information on how Social Security evaluates how your limitations affect the types of work you can do, see our article on how Social Security decides if you can work.

How to Apply for Social Security Disability

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

  • your Social Security number (SSN) and proof of age (like a birth certificate)
  • the names, ages, and SSNs of each family member who might also qualify for benefits (or affect your SSI income eligibility)
  • contact information for the doctors and other health care providers you've seen
  • your work history, including employer contact information
  • your banking information (for direct deposit), and
  • documents, including
    • your medical records, including all test results and treatment records (Social Security will help gather any that you don't already have), and
    • your most recent W-2 form (if you were self-employed, a copy of your federal tax return).

Gather as much of the above information as possible before starting your application. You can apply for SSDI or SSI in any of the following ways:

Even if you're not quite ready to apply for disability benefits, let Social Security know you intend to apply. That notice creates a "protective filing date," which can increase the amount of disability back pay you'll be eligible to receive.

VA Disability Rating for a Benign Brain Tumor

If your benign brain tumor is service-connected (resulting from—or made worse by—your active duty military service), you might qualify for benefits from both Social Security and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

In fact, it might be easier to get VA disability compensation. That's because, unlike Social Security's all-or-nothing disability determination process, the VA's rating system scores impairments based on how severely they affect your ability to function. And you can get VA compensation for partial disabilities (rated at 10% or higher).

The VA rates a benign brain tumor based on its effect on your motor, sensory, or mental function, with a minimum disability rating of 60%. (38 CFR § 4.124a.) If your benign brain tumor causes severe limitations, you could get a rating as high as 100% disabled.

Learn more about getting Social Security disability and VA disability at the same time.

Updated April 1, 2024

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