Can a Doctor's Note With Work Restrictions Help You Get Disability?

Doctor's notes need to include specific functional work restrictions.

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

Having a note from your doctor—often referred to as a medical source statement—that details your physical and mental restrictions can help you get disability benefits. But sometimes doctor's notes can be vague or not particularly useful. A good medical source statement will mention specific functional work restrictions that limit the types of jobs you're able to do.

What Your Doctor's Note Should Contain

Whether you're submitting a doctor's note to your long-term disability provider or with an application for Social Security disability benefits, the doctor's note must contain any functional limitations you have as a result of your disorder, condition, or illness.

Functional limitations can be physical, mental, or both. Examples include:

  • how long you can stand, walk, or sit for
  • how much weight you can lift and carry
  • whether you can reach overhead, bend, or need to recline (postural limitations)
  • whether you can handle small objects with your fingers or type (manipulative limitations)
  • what type of workplace you can be exposed to (environmental limitations)
  • how long you can interact with your coworkers, supervisors, and the general public, and
  • how much time you need to take off work for sick days or hospitalizations.

Ask your doctors to refer to objective evidence that's included in your medical records when writing their statements. For example, if you're applying for disability benefits due to disc degeneration in your lower back, and your doctor's note says that you can't sit for longer than 15 minutes, the note should point to any imaging such as X-rays or MRIs showing how severe the degeneration is.

The best way to get this information to your insurer or the SSA is to have your doctor fill out a detailed residual functional capacity (RFC) report about what you can and can't do. (You can find a blank RFC form here.) The RFC form also asks for clinical findings and test results that back up your doctor's opinion on your restrictions. Showing that your doctor's opinion is based on evidence is key to getting an approval.

Using Doctor Restrictions to Qualify for Disability Benefits

Just having a medical diagnosis isn't enough for you to get disability. You'll have to show that your functional limitations prevent you from returning to your past work, and in most cases you'll also need to show that you can't do any other jobs.

The RFC form that your doctor fills out will help your long-term disability insurer or Social Security claims examiners determine if jobs exist that you can still do despite your work restrictions. Jobs are classified according to how physically demanding (also called their exertional level) and mentally challenging (their skill level) they are. If your functional limitations prevent you from performing any job, you'll qualify for disability benefits.

Can My Doctor Make Me Go Back to Work?

Your doctor can't make you return to work if you aren't ready. But if your doctor fills out an RFC form and states that you don't have any functional restrictions, you'll have a tough time convincing your disability insurer or Social Security that you can't do any jobs.

Make sure that you give your RFC form to a doctor who you've seen for a while and is familiar with the medical condition that's preventing you from working. A doctor who you've only seen once or twice won't be as likely to know all the ways in which you're limited by your condition. And for Social Security claims, your doctor should be an "acceptable medical source."

My Doctor Says I'm Still Off Work, Why Is My Disability Denied?

If your doctor's note doesn't specify any functional restrictions, your disability insurer or Social Security claims examiner can't use the note to award you benefits. Doctors get busy and don't always have the time to fill out a comprehensive report. Some doctors might just not be aware of what information they need to provide, and think that a quick "no work" note is enough.

You might have to schedule an appointment with your doctor to have them perform an examination before filling out the RFC forms. Hand the form to your doctor and explain that you need a detailed description of your functional restrictions. After your doctor has returned the completed form, submit it along with any additional medical records to your insurer or the SSA.

Getting Help From a Disability Attorney

If you're having trouble getting disability benefits, consider talking to an experienced disability attorney or representative. An attorney can handle communications with your long-term disability insurer and Social Security, help obtain the necessary medical records, and appeal denials of benefits.

Updated August 15, 2022

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