Multiple system atrophy, or MSA, is a rare neurodegenerative disorder that affects the autonomic nervous system and gets progressively worse over time. MSA is a relatively new term for the disease. Other, older names for the disorder are:
Whatever the name, MSA is a very serious type of autonomic dysfunction that eventually leads to significant disability and death.
The symptoms of MSA that can be disabling include:
Currently, there is no cure for MSA.
The two main types of multiple system atrophy are:
Eventually, most patients with MSA-P or MSA-C will develop both cerebellar issues and parkinsonism.
There is no specific test for multiple system atrophy, and it's often confused with Parkinson's disease because of the similarity of some of the symptoms. However, MSA is distinct in that it causes damage to the autonomic nervous system, which controls bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and bladder functioning.
Diagnosis of multiple system atrophy is based primarily on doctors' observations. However, a brain MRI showing abnormalities in the striatum, pons, and cerebellum can be highly suggestive of MSA.
In evaluating whether you're disabled due to MSA, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will look for:
In order to qualify for benefits under either Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you must have a disability that has lasted or can be expected to last 12 months or more (or result in your death).
Social Security will evaluate whether you have a disability in one of three ways. You have to either meet "meet a listing" or "equal a listing," or your impairments must make you unable to do your previous or any other work for which you're qualified. And because of the severity of the disorder and its poor prognosis, Social Security has identified MSA as one of the medical conditions that can qualify for a fast-tracked approval under the Compassionate Allowance program.
Social Security has a list of impairments that are automatically considered disabling, if your medical records contain certain symptoms and test results. There is no specific listing for multiple system atrophy, but Social Security usually evaluates MSA under the disability listing for Parkinson's disease.
To qualify for benefits under the Parkinson's listing (11.06), your medical records must document one of the following:
If you don't meet the specific criteria described in the Parkinson's listing, Social Security can still find your condition disabling if your symptoms are as severe as the symptoms required in another of Social Security's listings. Since MSA affects many bodily functions, Social Security might evaluate the severity of your disability under several other listings:
If you don't meet or equal a listing, Social Security will examine how multiple system atrophy impacts your ability to work. You can still qualify for disability benefits if you can show Social Security that you're unable to return to your past job—or any other work for which you're qualified.
Since MSA affects so many bodily functions, you may have many types of issues that impact your ability to work. But whether you're found disabled will depend on how far the degeneration has progressed. Social Security will record your current limitations on a residual functional capacity (RFC) form and then use the form to decide whether you can work. The following limitations could keep you from working:
If limitations like these are well established in your medical records, you have a good chance of getting your claim approved.
Because MSA is generally found in adults aged 50 and above, it can be relatively easy to prove you have too many limitations to do your past job. And when you're older than 50, Social Security takes into account your age, education, and job skills (using the medical-vocational grid rules) to determine whether there's any other easy type of work you can learn to do. The older you are, the less likely Social Security will expect you to switch to a type of job you've never done before.
But for an applicant younger than 50, the agency will generally need to see that you can't do any simple sit-down job.
An easy way to start your disability application is to file online with Social Security. You don't have to finish the application all at once; just make sure that you keep track of the application number given to you when you start the application so you can access it again if you need to come back to it.
You can also apply for disability benefits over the phone by calling the SSA at 800-772-1213. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.
Finally, you can apply for disability benefits in person at your local Social Security field office. You can locate your field office here.
Updated September 29, 2023