Is It Possible to Get Social Security Disability Benefits for Muscular Atrophy?

Whether you'll get disability benefits for muscular atrophy depends on the degree of muscle wasting you have and the limitations it causes.

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

You can file for Social Security disability claim for muscular atrophy, or the wasting away of the muscles due to inactivity, but your chances of success depend on the severity of your limitations. In general, individuals who lack the muscle mass to perform the sitting, standing, walking, lifting and carrying required by sedentary jobs will be found eligible for disability benefits. And for those age 50 and over, Social Security's medical-vocational "grid rules" allow for a finding of disability even for some individuals who may be able to perform sedentary work.

In most cases, muscular atrophy occurs as a result of another illness or injury, such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, post-polio syndrome, ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), or even broken limbs. Some cases of muscular atrophy are easily observed. For example, removing a person's arm cast often reveals a limb that has decreased in size due to atrophy. In addition to visibly reduced muscle mass, another tell-tale sign of muscular atrophy is muscle weakness.

Often muscular atrophy is reversible through a combination of diet and exercise, but sometimes physical therapy or surgery may be required. In severe cases of muscular atrophy, especially where individuals are paralyzed or bedridden, there may be no treatment available. Generally speaking, Social Security will not grant disability benefits to individuals with muscular atrophy if that condition can be reasonably expected to improve within twelve months.

If you're suffering from muscular atrophy but don't know the cause, describe all your symptoms to your treating physician. Your doctor will use your medical history, reported symptoms, and other tests such as MRIs, CT scans, x-rays, blood tests, or nerve conduction studies, to locate the cause of your atrophy.

How to Prove the Severity of Your Muscular Atrophy

When filing for Social Security disability benefits based on muscular atrophy, it's important that you submit enough medical evidence to substantiate your claim. In addition to providing physician's notes, records of hospital visits, and results of objective testing, you should obtain an opinion from your doctor regarding your physical limitations. This Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form contains the important questions your physician needs to answer to assist in your disability claim.

Be sure your doctor addresses any exertional (strength-related) restrictions you experience, such as lifting, carrying, walking, sitting, standing, pushing, or pulling. It's also important that Social Security is aware of any non-exertional limitations you suffer from, including those involving:

  • kneeling
  • crouching
  • crawling
  • balancing
  • stooping
  • manipulating objects with your hands, and
  • fatigue, lack of focus, or other mental health symptoms caused by pain.
Written statements from former colleagues, friends, and family members may also bolster your claim, as long as they focus on physical problems that they have personally witnessed. The more evidence you can provide to document your restrictions, the greater chance you'll have in persuading SSA that you're unable to perform any jobs in the national economy.
Muscular atrophy by itself rarely forms the basis for a successful disability claim. Rather, it is usually just one of many symptoms of another condition, such as ALS, a stroke, or a spinal cord injury. Thus, make sure when completing your disability application (and testifying at your hearing) that you mention all the symptoms of your medical condition, not just those related to muscular atrophy. To learn about the requirements for meeting one of Social Security's disability listings for a related disease, see our articles on the following:

Spinal Muscular Atrophy

A rare hereditary condition known as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) is a very serious form of muscular atrophy. Spinal muscular atrophies are sometimes also referred to as motor neuron diseases or anterior horn cell diseases. SMA can cause weakness of the limbs and, in severe types of the disease, problems with breathing and swallowing.

Babies with Type 0 SMA, which is detected at the pre-natal stage, rarely live more than a few months. Infants with Type 1 SMA, generally diagnosed between birth and six months of age, will typically not live past two years of age. Because these conditions are so severe, Social Security has added them to its Compassionate Allowances List (CAL), which allows for approval of disability benefits in as little as a few weeks.

The less severe forms of SMA, classified as Type 2, Type 3, or Type 4 (adult-onset muscular atrophy), are not included on the compassionate allowances list, but they may still form the basis of a successful disability claim if they are so debilitating that they prevent any gainful employment. Social Security could evaluate these forms of SMA under its disability listings for motor dysfunction (for children) or possibly muscular dystrophy (for adults).

The more severe forms of adult-onset spinal muscular atrophy, such as spinal-bulbar muscular atrophy and progressive muscular atrophy, are similar to ALS. Social Security could evaluate these diseases under its disability listing for ALS.

Improve Your Chances by Hiring a Disability Attorney

If you've been denied benefits for muscular atrophy that prevents you from working, an experienced disability attorney can help you navigate the confusing disability appeals process. In addition to representing you at your disability hearing, your lawyer will work with your doctor to obtain the medical evidence necessary to maximize your chances of success. Disability attorneys generally work "on contingency," meaning they charge no fee upfront and they collect a fee only if you win your case.

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