Getting Disability for Transverse Myelitis

If you have long-lasting limitations from transverse myelitis, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

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

Transverse myelitis (TM) is inflammation of the tissue (called myelin) that surrounds nerve cell fibers in your spinal cord. TM can cause pain and muscle weakness. Severe cases can result in incontinence and leg paralysis.

Doctors don't always know what causes an individual case of transverse myelitis. It sometimes results from an infection like Lyme disease or varicella zoster (the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles). In about half of all TM cases, the disease is associated with immune disorders like:

There's no cure for TM, but anti-inflammatory drugs can relieve some symptoms. And some people with TM recover fully. But you might qualify for Social Security disability if the impairments caused by transverse myelitis:

  • are severe enough to keep you from working, and
  • have lasted or are expected to last at least one year.

If your doctor expects you to recover in less than a year (and you have no other disabling conditions), you won't qualify for disability. But if your TM symptoms are severe and last longer than a year, you might meet the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) definition of "disabled."

Symptoms of Transverse Myelitis That Can Be Disabling

Transverse myelitis symptoms can come on quickly or develop over a few weeks. If you have an immune disorder, your symptoms might recur. TM often causes at least some of the following symptoms:

  • back pain
  • sharp pain that radiates down your legs and arms or around your torso
  • weakness or paralysis in your legs (or sometimes arms)
  • sensitivity to touch (even slight fingertip pressure can be painful)
  • pins-and-needles or numbness in your toes, feet, or legs
  • muscle spasms
  • fever
  • loss of appetite, and
  • loss of bladder and bowel control.

Which symptoms you experience will depend on which part of your spinal cord is involved—the further up your spine, the more body systems TM affects.

Meeting a Disability Listing With Transverse Myelitis

Social Security doesn't have a disability listing for transverse myelitis. But severe cases of TM can sometimes "equal the listing" for spinal cord disorders (listing 11.08). To qualify for disability under this listing, you must meet one of the following requirements:

  • complete loss of function of a body part, such as arms or legs, lasting for at least three months, including:
    • paralysis
    • lack of sensation, or
    • loss of bladder or intestinal function
  • disorganized motor function resulting in extreme difficulty:
    • standing up from a seated position
    • balancing while standing or walking, or
    • using your arms or hands


  • marked (serious, but not extreme) physical limitations and a serious limitation in:
    • thinking
    • social interactions
    • concentrating on and finishing tasks, or
    • regulating emotions and controlling behavior.

Or, if your doctor has linked your TM to another disorder like MS, you might meet or equal the medical listing for that disorder.

(Learn more about getting disability benefits by equaling a listing.)

Getting Disability for Transverse Myelitis Based on a Residual Functional Capacity

If your transverse myelitis doesn't meet or equal a listing, Social Security will look at your residual functional capacity (RFC) to determine if you can still work. Your RFC is an assessment of your limitations and what you can still do.

What Does Your RFC Rating Mean?

Social Security will use a physical RFC assessment form to evaluate how TM has affected your physical and sensory capacities, including your ability to:

  • stand and walk
  • lift and carry
  • push and pull
  • use your hands and fingers, and
  • see, hear, and speak.

If you have TM, you might have difficulty walking or standing, and perhaps you experience numbness in your legs and feet. Social Security will use your RFC to assess what kind of work activities you can still do based on things like how long you can stand and how much you can lift and carry (called "exertional functions").

Social Security will then give you one of the following ratings to indicate the kind of work you can still do:

  • sedentary work
  • light work
  • medium work, or
  • heavy work.

For example, if you can't stand or walk for more than two hours a day, your RFC will be for sedentary work. If you have trouble standing or walking on your own, your RFC might be for "less than sedentary" work. If you can no longer do even sedentary work, your disability application will likely be approved.

But it's critical that Social Security understands the full extent of your limitations. So, it can be very helpful to your claim to have your treating physician complete an RFC questionnaire to document your symptoms and describe how they limit your functioning. Your doctor's opinion will carry a good deal of weight—as long as the medical evidence in your file supports it.

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC?

Social Security will first use your RFC to decide whether or not you can do your prior job. The agency will review your work history to see if you can still perform all the duties of your past work despite the limitations in your RFC.

If you can't, Social Security will determine whether there are other, less demanding jobs you could switch to doing. Social Security will base this decision on your RFC and your:

  • age
  • education level, and
  • work history.

For disability applicants who are age 50 or older, being unable to do their past work might be enough to qualify for disability under the medical-vocational grid rules. But applicants under the age of 50 usually need to show they can't do even an easy sit-down job before they can get benefits.

Applying for Disability Benefits for Transverse Myelitis

Before you can collect Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits, you must file an application. You can do that by:

If you don't meet the SSDI work requirements, you can still apply for disability benefits from Social Security. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is a needs-based program that benefits people with disabilities—even those who've never worked. Learn more about SSI disability, including how to apply for benefits.

Updated February 12, 2024

Do You Qualify for Disability in Your State?
Find out in minutes by taking our short quiz.

Talk to a Disability Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Boost Your Chance of Being Approved

Get the Compensation You Deserve

Our experts have helped thousands like you get cash benefits.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you