Getting Disability Benefits for Short Bowel Syndrome

Social Security may award you disability benefits if you have severe limitations due to short bowel syndrome that affect your ability to work full time.

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Short bowel syndrome is a medical condition where the body doesn't absorb enough nutrients because part of the small intestine is missing or isn't working the way it should. The small intestine is a long, narrow tube that extends from the stomach to the large intestine and is responsible for most of the digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Short bowel syndrome (SBS) is a rare disease, affecting about three out of every one million people. Though there isn't a cure, doctors can usually help treat the symptoms. Even so, some people experience very severe symptoms, which can lead to disabling and life-threatening complications.

Symptoms of Short Bowel Syndrome

The symptoms of short bowel syndrome vary from person to person and depend on the length of the remaining small intestine, but the most common symptoms include:

  • diarrhea that can result in dehydration
  • unintentional weight loss and malnourishment
  • fatigue and weakness
  • bloating and cramping
  • heartburn
  • loss of muscle mass, and
  • peripheral edema (swelling of the tissues in the legs and feet).

Causes of Short Bowel Syndrome

There are two types of short bowel syndrome:

Congenital. A congenital cause is one that is present at birth. The exact causes of congenital short bowel syndrome are unknown.

Acquired. Short bowel syndrome is more commonly acquired during life. Usually, short bowel syndrome occurs because of resection (surgical removal) of part of the small intestine. Resection is typically required because of other medical conditions, such as Crohn's disease, cancer, damage to the intestines from lack of blood flow, traumatic injuries, or birth defects. But someone can have short bowel syndrome even if a part of their intestine hasn't been removed. And bowel resection (also called a partial colectomy) doesn't always result in short bowel syndrome.

Can You Get Disability Benefits for Short Bowel Syndrome?

A diagnosis of short bowel syndrome isn't enough to get disability benefits. But if you're experiencing moderate to severe limitations that prevent you from working for 12 months or more and you have medical records showing your diagnosis and limitations, the Social Security Administration ("Social Security") may approve you for benefits.

The two ways you can qualify for disability benefits are:

  • Meeting a "listing." Social Security has a disability evaluation handbook that outlines the criteria for disability for various medical conditions. Social Security calls these rules "listings."
  • Being unable to work due to your limitations. Even if you don't meet a listing, you might still be eligible for disability benefits if you can prove that you have a severe medical impairment that makes you unable to do work activities.

Meeting a Listing

Social Security will evaluate your condition under listing 5.07 for short bowel syndrome if you've had surgical resection to shorten your small intestine. The listing states that your medical records must show you've had surgical removal of more than half of the small intestine and you require daily "parenteral nutrition via a central venous catheter" (this means that your nutrients are delivered through a thin tube called a catheter that has been inserted into a vein). As long as you're dependent on daily parenteral nutrition, you'll continue to meet the requirements of the listing.

Medical Evidence That Social Security Needs to Decide Your Claim

So what types of medical evidence do you need to meet the listing for SBS? You should have a CT scan or MRI imaging and your doctors' treatment notes. Social Security might also send you for an independent exam by one of their doctors or ask your doctor to complete a questionnaire about your limitations.

Specifically, to get approved for disability under the listing for short bowel syndrome, your medical records should include the following:

  • a copy of the surgical report of intestinal resection
  • a summary of the hospitalization(s) you've had
  • medical imaging taken after surgical resection that shows how much of the small intestine remains
  • documentation that you are dependent on daily parenteral nutrition to provide most of your nutritional needs, and
  • doctor's notes reflecting the frequency and severity of your symptoms.

Being Unable to Work Due to Short Bowel Syndrome

Most disability claims that are approved for benefits don't actually meet the criteria of one of the listings contained in Social Security's blue book. Instead, Social Security approves them because the applicants' limitations make them unable to perform their previous jobs, and they're unable to transition into another type of work.

So if you have short bowel syndrome but you haven't had half of your small intestine removed, Social Security will look at what types of work-related activity you can do.

Social Security will first look at your medical records to see if there's enough evidence you have a serious medical condition that limits your ability to do many work-related activities. The claims examiner will then determine your "residual functional capacity" (RFC), which is the most intensive work you can still do (medium, light, or sedentary), despite the limitations caused by your medical condition. For example, if you have short bowel syndrome, your doctor might limit you to standing or walking to half the day or lifting and carrying no more than a certain number of pounds at one time, due to fatigue and weakness. Your doctor may also require that you have ready access to restroom facilities or report that you would require extra breaks during a normal workday.

An actual RFC for someone suffering from short bowel syndrome might include the following limitations:

  • walk and stand for four hours of an eight-hour workday
  • lift and carry no more than 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently
  • stoop, crouch, crawl, kneel, or bend only occasionally
  • have immediate and unscheduled access to restroom facilities, and
  • require a 6-minute break every hour, in addition to the normally scheduled two 15-minute breaks and one 30-minute lunch break.

Someone with these limitations would likely be unable to do most jobs, because they wouldn't be able to perform all the physical requirements of even sit-down work. Social Security knows that sit-down work usually requires at least some stooping and bending and doesn't allow for six-minute breaks every hour.

For more information on how the SSA decides whether your RFC prevents you from doing any jobs, see our section on disability determinations based on RFCs.

How Do I Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits?

An easy way to apply for Social Security disability benefits is to file your claim online at www.ssa.gov/applyfordisability. You may also file a claim over the phone by contacting Social Security at 800-772-1213, but be prepared for long wait times. For more information, please see our article about applying for Social Security disability benefits.

If you have questions or you'd like help with your application, click for a free case evaluation with a legal professional to determine if your symptoms qualify for benefits. Disability representatives collect a one-time fee only if you win benefits (for a maximum of 25% of your backpay).

Published December 30, 2021

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