Bell's Palsy is a condition that affects the nerves in the face. Because of damaged nerves, the facial muscles are unable to function properly, which can cause facial drooping, excessive tearing of the eyes, changes in the ability to taste, facial pain, and facial numbness. Bell's Palsy usually appears quickly (sometimes overnight), but resolves completely in several months
Treatment for most cases of Bell's Palsy is limited to cortisone treatments and, occasionally, antiviral medication. Some rare cases don't respond to treatment and can cause permanent nerve damage that can result in vision loss and synkinesis, a condition where nerves regrow into the wrong muscles.
To decide if you are eligible for disability, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first look at the severity of your medical condition. The basic requirement for disability is that your condition is so severe that it prevents you from working at the substantial gainful activity level, or SGA (generally defined as earning about $1,500 a month from working), for at least 12 consecutive months. The primary reason it will be hard to get disability for Bell's Palsy is that, for most people, Bell's Palsy symptoms are temporary and so the duration requirement cannot be met.
If the SSA does decide your condition meets these criteria because it affects you severely and has lasted 12 months, the agency will next determine whether your Bell's Palsy meets the requirements of a medical condition in its Listing of Impairments. Bell's Palsy, however, is not a listing, so you will have to prove to the SSA that your symptoms are so severe that not only are you unable to do your old job, but you are also unable to perform any other jobs in the national or local economy.
Although it will likely be hard to win your case, you may still get approved for disability if your Bell's Palsy has caused permanent damage and has significantly impacted your ability to work. The SSA will have to decide your physical residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is the most you can do on a regular and sustained basis. Your RFC can be for sedentary, light, medium, or heavy work. Generally, if the SSA decides you still have the RFC for sedentary work, you will be denied.
To determine your RFC, the SSA will prepare a report using the medical evidence you have submitted to see how the symptoms of your Bell's Palsy affect your ability to do certain work-related activities such as standing, sitting, walking, lifting, and carrying.
Because Bell's Palsy doesn't affect a person's strength, the SSA will probably conclude that you can still do a sedentary (sit-down) job. This means that unless you can prove that you have non-strength related limitations that stop you from working, you will be denied.
Work activities that are not strength-related are called non-exertional. The SSA must consider how non-exertional impairments impact a person's ability to work. Examples of non-exertional impairments are:
People who suffer permanent damage from Bell's Palsy may develop severe vision problems in the eye that was affected by the paralysis. Also, if the nerves regrow incorrectly and attach to the wrong facial muscles (called synkinesis), a person may have difficulty with their speech or with eating and drinking. It is also not uncommon for someone with permanent facial paralysis to experience anxiety and depression as a result of their condition.
Here are examples of how the SSA might decide a claim based on non-exertional impairments related to permanent damage from Bell's Palsy.
Multiple impairments. Many people suffer from more than one disabling condition that prevent them from working. If this is your situation, the SSA is required to consider the combined effects of these conditions on your ability to work. Be sure to list on your disability applications any conditions that make it difficult to work, even if they are not as severe as your main limitations. To learn more, visit our article about how multiple impairments can help you win your claim.
Exertional and non-exertional limitations. If you have multiple impairments, you may also have both exertional and non-exertional impairments that impact your ability to work. This can make it easier to get approved. You can learn more by reading our article about how to win your claim using an exertional and non-exertional limitation.
Advanced age. It is usually much easier for a person who is 50 years or older to get approved for disability even if the SSA decides the claimant can do a sedentary job. This is because, for older claimants, the SSA can use the "grid rules" to determine whether the person is disabled. The grid rules consider factors in addition to RFC level, such as the claimant's age, education level, the skill level of past work, and whether those skills can be used in a new position. An older applicant without much education or job skills is likely to be found disabled even if she can do sedentary work.
Here is an example of how the grids might help an older claimant get approved.
For a detailed discussion of all of the grid rules, see our section on the disability grids.
It can be difficult to win a claim based on Bell's Palsy alone. However, if you have suffered permanent nerve damage, have other medical conditions, or are an older claimant, you may be able to get approved. Have your claim evaluated for free by an experienced disability attorney.