Getting Social Security Disability for Syringomyelia

Patients suffering limitations in functioning due to advanced syringomyelia may be able to get disability benefits.

Syringomyelia is a condition where fluid-filled cysts form within the spinal cord. As the cysts grow, they can damage the spinal cord, which leads to impairments. This condition can be caused by birth defects, injuries to the spinal cord, and tumors in the spinal cord. If the condition causes limitations that prevent you from working, you may be eligible to receive Social Security disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Disabling Symptoms of Syringomyelia

Syringomyelia does not always cause symptoms. But symptoms usually develop over time. Initially, symptoms generally begin in the back of the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands and can include:

  • neck pain or pain that radiates down the arms or legs
  • muscle weakness or loss of muscle in arms or legs
  • tightness or spasms in the arm or leg muscles
  • loss of reflexes
  • numbness or decreased feeling in the skin or face
  • decreased sensitivity to pain or temperatures
  • headache
  • decrease in coordination, and
  • bowel and bladder issues.

Treatment for Syringomyelia

Treatments that are available for syringomyelia may include surgery. With surgery, the impairments can sometimes be stopped from getting worse or may even show improvement (which occurs with about half of patients). Syringomyelia can get progressively worse and can lead to more complications such as:

  • complete loss of many types of nervous system functions
  • scoliosis (curving of the spine)
  • chronic pain
  • difficulty walking or the inability to walk, and
  • decreased functioning of the arms or hands.

If individuals have impairments that prevent them from working, they can qualify for SSDI or SSI in two ways: (1) meeting a disability listing or (2) having limitations that make then unable to work any job.

Meeting a Disability Listing With Syringomyelia

To meet a listing, an individual must show that they have all of the requirements of a disability listing from the Social Security “blue book,” which contains medical conditions that are severe enough to automatically qualify for disability benefits. The listing that addresses syringomyelia is listing 11.08 for spinal cord disorders. To meet this listing, you must have one of the following sets of symptoms:

  • Complete loss of function of the affected body part, such as arms or legs or any other organ. The complete loss must last at least 3 months, unless the spinal cord has been cut (transected), since recovery cannot be expected.  (Loss of function applies not only to paralysis, but any other normal function like sensation, or loss of function of the autonomic nervous system that affects bladder or intestinal function.)

OR

  • Extreme difficulty standing up from a seated position, balancing while standing or walking, or using the upper extremities.

OR

  • “Marked” physical problems with any one of the following:
    • thinking (understanding, remembering, or applying information)
    • interacting with others (social problems), or
    • finishing tasks (problems with concentration, persistence, or speed).

Note that marked means worse than moderate, but less than extreme.

For children, having one of the first two sets of symptoms will qualify them for SSI (if they meet the financial requirements).

Inability to Work Because of Syringomyelia

If you do not meet the syringomyelia listing but are unable to work, you may still qualify for disability benefits. In order to do this, you must show that your limitations are so great that there is no job you can do. Social Security will assess the work you can do by considering your limitations, age, education level, and work experience.

For physical impairments, Social Security will look at your ability to do physically demanding activities in the work place; for example, your ability to pull, push, lift, or carry objects and your ability to do things with your hands and fingers, such as filing. Your ability to walk, sit, and stand for any amount of time will also be considered in your physical abilities. Non-exertional limitations are also considered, such as the need to avoid work at unprotected heights due to poor balance. For example, for those with syringomyelia, decrease in muscle tone or loss of sensation in the arms, legs, or fingers can significantly decrease an individual’s ability to do both exertional and nonexertional physical activities.  

If you have problems with thinking, remembering, or concentrating that aren't severe enough to meet the listing but are severe enough to prevent you from returning to work, you may be able to get disability. Social Security will take into consideration the overall effect of mental and physical problems together on your ability to work.

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