I Have Pulmonary Hypertension. Can I Get Social Security Disability Benefits?

If you’re experiencing moderate to severe limitations from pulmonary hypertension, Social Security might approve you for benefits.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Pulmonary hypertension is a general term used to describe high blood pressure ("hypertension") that affects the blood vessels in the lungs.

Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is a disease that causes the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the lungs ("pulmonary arteries") to become narrow and stiffen. This causes the blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries to rise abnormally high and puts extra pressure on the right side of the heart ("right ventricle"). The right ventricle becomes overworked and enlarged, causing it to become weak and lose its ability to pump enough blood into the lungs.

There's no cure for pulmonary arterial hypertension, but treatment can help lessen symptoms and manage the condition. If you suffer from pulmonary hypertension, you may be able to get Social Security disability benefits if your symptoms are severe.

Symptoms of Pulmonary Hypertension

Symptoms of pulmonary hypertension typically aren't noticeable until the condition is more advanced, but the first noticeable symptom is usually shortness of breath with daily activities, such as climbing stairs. Other symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • fainting spells
  • chest pain or pressure
  • swelling of the ankles, legs, or abdomen
  • heart palpitations or racing pulse, and
  • difficulty breathing, even when resting.

What Causes Pulmonary Hypertension?

Some known causes of pulmonary hypertension include:

Pulmonary hypertension is a rare disorder, occurring in one to two people per million each year in the U.S. Pulmonary hypertension can affect people of all ages, but it's more common in women between the ages of 30-60.

What Are the Complications of Pulmonary Hypertension?

Potential complications of pulmonary hypertension include:

  • blood clots
  • arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • hemoptysis (coughing up blood), and
  • cor pulmonale (right-sided heart enlargement and failure).

Can You Get Disability Benefits for Pulmonary Hypertension?

A diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension is not 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 good medical records, the Social Security Administration ("Social Security") might approve you for benefits.

Social Security has two ways you can qualify for disability benefits:

  • 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 may 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 Respiratory Listing

Social Security may assess your condition under listing 3.09 for chronic pulmonary hypertension. The listing states that your medical records must show you have chronic pulmonary hypertension documented by "mean pulmonary artery pressure" of 40 mm Hg or higher.

To determine the blood pressure in your pulmonary arteries, your doctor will need to order pulmonary artery catheterization (also called cardiac catheterization). The test must be done while your condition is stable, which means your doctor should delay the catheterization in any of the following situations:

  • Your respiratory medication changed (wait two weeks).
  • You have a lower respiratory tract infection (wait 30 days).
  • You have an acute exacerbation of a chronic respiratory disorder (wait 30 days).
  • You've been hospitalized for a heart attack (wait 30 days).

Medical Evidence That Social Security Needs to Decide Your Claim

Social Security will evaluate your claim based on medical evidence like lab tests, imaging results, and your doctors' treatment notes. Social Security might also send you for an independent exam by one of their doctors or might ask your doctor to complete a questionnaire about your limitations.

To get approved for disability for pulmonary hypertension, your medical records must include at least the following:

  • reports of any tests you've had (like pulmonary function tests, open-lung biopsy, CT scan, ECG, or echocardiogram)
  • a summary of any hospitalizations you've had
  • documentation of medications you've tried and your response to them, and
  • doctor's notes reflecting the frequency and severity of your symptoms.

Being Unable to Work Due to Pulmonary Hypertension

Most disability claims that are approved for benefits don't actually meet the criteria of one of the listings in Social Security's evaluation handbook. 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.

Social Security will first look at your medical records to see if there's enough evidence that you have a serious medical condition that limits your ability to do many work-related activities. A claims examiner will first determine your residual functional capacity (RFC), which is the most intensive work you can do (medium, light, or sedentary), despite the limitations caused by your medical condition. For example, if you have pulmonary hypertension, your doctor might limit you to standing or walking a certain number of hours per day or lifting and carrying a certain number of pounds at one time due to fatigue and shortness of breath.

An actual RFC for someone suffering from pulmonary hypertension might include the following limitations:

  • walk and stand no more than four hours of an eight-hour workday
  • lift and carry no more than twenty pounds occasionally (defined as 1/3 of an eight-hour workday) and ten pounds frequently (defined as occurring from 1/3 to 2/3 of an eight-hour workday)
  • occasionally stoop, crouch, crawl, kneel, or bend
  • never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds
  • occasionally climb ramps or stairs
  • no exposure to pulmonary irritants, such as fumes, pollen, dust, or odors, and
  • no work at unprotected heights or near erratically moving surfaces.

      Someone with these limitations would likely be unable to perform most jobs because they would be limited to sit-down jobs, but they would be unable to perform many of the physical requirements of even a sit-down job.

      For more information on how Social Security 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

      Published January 4, 2022

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