Syringomyelia (sir-in-joe-my-EL-ee-uh) is a neurological condition where fluid-filled cysts (called syrinx) form within the spinal cord. As the cysts grow, they can damage the spinal cord, and the nerve fibers that carry electrical impulses between the brain and the body can become compressed. People with syringomyelia may find it difficult to move their arms and legs as a result.
Syringomyelia may be caused by birth defects, spinal cord injuries, or spinal cord tumors. If you have functional limitations from your syringomyelia that keep you from working full-time for at least one year, you may qualify for disability benefits such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
Syringomyelia doesn't always cause symptoms, but they often develop over time, starting in the back of the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. Common symptoms of syringomyelia include:
Syringomyelia is typically diagnosed with a physical examination and medical imaging, such as an MRI. (You'll want to make sure that you submit the diagnostic MRI, examination results, and doctor's diagnosis with your disability application.)
People with milder cases of syringomyelia may just need to have their doctor monitor their syrinx (to make sure they don't grow) and avoid strenuous physical activities. But more severe cases of syringomyelia can require surgery to remove the syrinx.
About half of syringomyelia patients who have surgery find that the procedure is successful. Surgery can stop symptoms from getting worse or improve symptoms that are already severe. But some patients have complications from the surgery, such as:
If you're experiencing complications from syringomyelia (such as those listed above) and you're unable to work full-time as a result, you could qualify for disability benefits—either by meeting a disability listing or showing that no jobs exist that you can do.
Social Security maintains a "Blue Book" of medical conditions that the agency considers especially disabling. Each condition in the Blue Book is called a "listed impairment" and describes the medical evidence that disability applicants must provide to "meet the listing." If you meet a listing, Social Security will award you benefits automatically without having to determine whether you can do any jobs.
Because syringomyelia is a neurological condition that affects the spinal cord, Social Security can evaluate the impairment under listing 11.08 for spinal cord disorders. In order to meet listing 11.08, you must have one of the following three "sets" of symptoms:
Children can qualify for SSI benefits due to syringomyelia if they have medical documentation of one of the first two sets of symptoms under listing 111.08, provided they meet the financial eligibility requirements for the program.
You can still qualify for disability benefits even if you don't meet listing 11.08 by showing that your functional limitations rule out all full-time jobs. Social Security reviews your medical records and daily activities for evidence of any limitations you have, physical and mental. The agency will then determine what types of job tasks you're still capable of performing and which tasks you should avoid, a process called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC).
Social Security will look at your ability to do physically demanding activities in the workplace, including:
For example, people with syringomyelia may experience a decrease in muscle tone or a loss of sensation in their arms, legs, or fingers. They may be unable to lift packages heavier than a certain weight, write a short email without making mistakes, or work at unprotected heights due to poor balance. Social Security should include these restrictions in their RFC.
The agency also considers any mental or cognitive problems you have as a result of syringomyelia (or other impairments). If you struggle to follow instructions at work, find it difficult to maintain focus on tasks, or have a hard time interacting with other people, Social Security will consider how those limitations affect the kinds of jobs you can do.
Social Security looks at the restrictions in your RFC and compares them against the duties of your past relevant work. If you can't perform your old jobs given your current limitations—for example, your RFC says you shouldn't operate heavy machinery and your past work involved operating a jackhammer—the agency will need to determine whether you can do other work.
Depending on your RFC, age, and job history, you might be able to show that you can't do other work because you don't know how to do it (and aren't expected to learn). Most disability applicants under the age of 50, however, will need to show that they can't perform even the simplest, sit-down jobs—what Social Security calls sedentary, unskilled work—before the agency will award them disability benefits.
Applying for Social Security benefits is a straightforward process. You can file your application in one of four ways:
You can increase your chances of winning your disability case by hiring a qualified attorney who can help guide you through the process. Your lawyer can make sure you obtain and submit all the necessary medical evidence, handle communication with Social Security, and represent you at a disability hearing.
Updated December 4, 2023