Getting Social Security Disability for Syringomyelia

When symptoms from syringomyelia affect your ability to perform the physical and mental duties of full-time work, you may qualify for disability.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

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).

Disabling Symptoms of Syringomyelia

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:

  • neck pain or pain that radiates down the arms or legs
  • muscle weakness or atrophy (loss) in the arms or legs
  • tightness or muscle spasms in the arms or legs
  • diminished reflexes
  • numbness or reduced feeling in the skin or face
  • decreased sensitivity to pain or temperatures
  • headaches
  • loss of coordination, and
  • bowel and bladder issues.

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.)

Treatment for Syringomyelia

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:

  • complete loss of many types of nervous system functions
  • scoliosis (spinal curvature)
  • chronic pain
  • trouble walking, and
  • decreased functioning in the arms or hands.

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.

Getting Benefits by Meeting a Disability Listing With Syringomyelia

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:

  • Complete loss of function of the affected body part, such as arms, legs, or any other organ, that lasts for at least 3 months. If you've had a total cord transection (spinal cord cut) that results in loss of motor and sensory function below the cut, your claim will be approved—even if it hasn't been 3 months since the surgery—because full recovery isn't expected. Loss of function doesn't just mean "paralysis," but also loss of sensation or involuntary reflexes.
  • Problems with motor function in two extremities (upper, lower, or one of each) that causes you extreme difficulty when standing up from a seated position, maintaining balance while standing or walking, or using the upper extremities (including fingers, wrists, hands, arms, and shoulders). Your limitation must be extreme—meaning you can't perform the activity without assistance—and must last for at least 3 months.
  • Marked limitations in physical functioning with at least one mental limitation, as evidenced by difficulties with understanding and using information; interacting with others; finishing tasks; and taking care of oneself. Both your mental and physical limitations must be marked—not as severe as extreme, but still interfering significantly with your daily activities—and must last for at least 3 months.

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.

Getting Benefits for an Inability to Work Due to Syringomyelia

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).

What's In Your RFC?

Social Security will look at your ability to do physically demanding activities in the workplace, including:

  • how much weight you can lift, carry, push, and pull
  • how often you can use your hands and fingers to do tasks such as typing
  • how long you can walk, sit, and stand before you need to stop
  • whether you can climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and
  • what type of tools, machines, or equipment you can safely use.

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.

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC?

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.

Filing for Disability Benefits for Syringomyelia

Applying for Social Security benefits is a straightforward process. You can file your application in one of four ways:

  • online through Social Security's website
  • over the phone at 888-772-1213, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778
  • in person at your local Social Security field office, or
  • by hiring an attorney or representative to file your application for you.

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

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