Getting Social Security Benefits When You Can't Sit for Long

When you have a medical condition that makes it impossible to sit for long periods of time, you may be able to get Social Security disability.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law

A "sitting disability" is any medical condition that significantly impacts a person's ability to sit for even a short period of time. This can make it difficult for a person to maintain full-time work, since many jobs require at least some sitting. However, disability benefits can be difficult to get since many sitting disabilities can be treated effectively with medication and physical therapy.

What Causes a Sitting Disability?

Many conditions can cause difficulty sitting, including back injuries, sciatica, and piriformis syndrome. Here are a few of the lesser known conditions that make it hard to sit down for long periods of time.

Coccydynia. Coccydynia is pain that occurs in and around the tailbone (the "coccyx"). Frequently, there is no known cause, but it's sometimes related to trauma, infection, fractures, or hyper-mobility of the tailbone joint. Symptoms include pain during bowel movements, intercourse, sitting for long periods, and when moving from a sitting to standing position. Although coccydynia can frequently be treated effectively with rest, medication, and physical therapy, in rare cases, removal of the tailbone is necessary; pain, however, often continues despite surgery.

Myofascial pain syndrome. Myofascial pain syndrome is a chronic pain condition that causes pain and discomfort in different parts of the body and can be caused by the contraction of muscles. These areas of intense muscle stress can develop into trigger points, highly sensitive and painful knots of muscle fiber. Sitting can cause these trigger points to flare up painfully. Myofascial pain syndrome can be treated with medications such as antidepressants, over-the-counter pain medication, and physical therapy.

Pudendal neuralgia. Pudendal neuralgia is an uncommon disorder that impacts the nerve that runs through the genitals, urethra, anus, and perineum. The condition affects both men and women and can cause intense pain in the perineum, anus, testicles, penis, vagina, vulva, or urethra, particularly while sitting. Medication, surgery, and physical therapy can be effective in treating this condition.

The information in this article can be applied to any impairment that significantly impacts a person's ability to sit.

Can I Get Benefits for a Sitting Disability?

To meet the basic requirements for eligibility for Social Security disability benefits, your medical condition must prevent you from doing substantial work (generally, work that earns you over about $1,500 per month) for at least 12 consecutive months.

Next you'll have to show that your sitting disability is a severe impairment and that you don't have the "residual functional capacity" (RFC) to do any job because of your inability to sit. Below we'll discuss what your RFC needs to look like to get disability benefits.

What If I Have a Sedentary Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)?

To determine whether you can do your old job, or whether you can do any other job that exists in significant numbers, the Social Security Administration (SSA) must determine what your RFC is—that is, how much capacity you have and how your capacity is limited.

To establish your RFC, the SSA will look at the medical evidence in your file to see how your condition impacts your ability to do certain strength-related work activities. The SSA will then assign you an RFC for sedentary, light, medium, heavy, or very heavy work.

Here is how the RFC classifications are defined.

  • Sedentary. The ability to lift no more than ten pounds and to occasionally carry objects (like files) and to walk or stand not more than two hours out of an eight-hour workday.
  • Light. The ability to lift up to 20 pounds and frequently lift and carry objects up to ten pounds and spend most of the day standing or walking.
  • Medium. The ability to lift up to 50 pounds and frequently lift and carry up to 25 pounds.
  • Heavy. The ability to lift no more than 100 pounds and frequently lift and carry up to 50.
  • Very heavy. The ability to lift more than 100 and frequently lift and carry up to 50 pounds or more.

If the SSA decides a claimant (applicant) still has the RFC to do their old job, the claim will be denied. Further, when the SSA determines a claimant has the RFC for sedentary work, the claim will usually be denied.

However, having trouble sitting can change that; if you can't sit down, you can do only what the SSA calls "less than sedentary" work. This means the SSA should grant you benefits.

Whether the SSA finds someone with some type of sitting disability to have the RFC for a full range of sedentary work or "less than sedentary" work depends on how long the claimant can sit.

Here are some examples.

  • The claimant filed for disability based on severe coccydynia (tailbone pain). She had been through several rounds of physical therapy and had taken medication, but treatment wasn't successful. She still had pain while sitting even when using customized cushions and a chair with a coccyx cut-out. As a last resort, her tailbone was surgically removed, but the pain continued. Based on the medical evidence in her file, the claimant was not able to sit for more than a few minutes at a time and experienced intense pain when moving from one position to another. Her past work had been as an office manager, which was described as a sedentary job. Based on this evidence, the SSA determined she did not have the RFC to sit for at least six hours a day, and therefore could not do a sedentary job. She was approved for disability benefits.
  • The claimant filed for disability due to pudendal neuralgia. He underwent physical therapy that helped minimally, and received routine steroid shots that eased the pain. His past work was as an auto mechanic. Although the SSA determined he didn't have the RFC to do his old job (which requires a medium RFC), the agency did determine that he could do a sedentary job so long as he could sit using a prescribed cushion to alleviate discomfort. He was, therefore, denied disability benefits

For more information, read our article about how to argue you can do only "less than sedentary" work.

    Will My Doctor's Opinion Help?

    Social Security is likely to give your doctor's opinion substantial weight if it's backed up by medical evidence and consistent with information from other doctors or sources (including Social Security's doctor, if you're sent to a consultative exam). Ask your treating doctor to prepare an RFC (or "medical source statement") for you that includes information on your limited ability to sit. Also, ask your doctor to explain how objective medical evidence (tests) support their opinion that your ability to sit is limited. If your doctor is reluctant, see our article on what to do if your doctor won't help you with your disability claim.

    What Else Can I Do?

    Even if the SSA determines you have the RFC to do a sedentary job, you could still win your claim using the following techniques:

    Jobs with a sit/stand option. The symptoms of your condition may require that you be able to sit and stand or otherwise change positions as needed throughout the day. This requirement can significantly reduce the number of jobs that a person can do, because many employers don't provide that option. If the objective medical evidence in your file shows that you must be able to alternate positions when you want to, it's possible to argue that no jobs exist in significant numbers in the national or local economy that accommodate this requirement.

    Combination of impairments. With chronic pain conditions like sitting disabilities, it's not unusual for a claimant to experience depression and anxiety or other impairments that impact the ability to work. The SSA must consider all of a person's impairments and how they impact the ability to work. For example, a person with a sitting disability may not only have physical limitations in how long they can stay seated, but may also suffer from problems with focus and concentration stemming from depression and anxiety. For more information, see our article on how to win benefits using a combination of impairments.

    Grid rules. Older claimants may be able to win a claim using Social Security's grid rules, even if the SSA has determined a claimant can do a sit-down job. The grid rules are a series of tables that say whether a claimant is disabled or not disabled based on the claimant's age, education, RFC, and the skill level of their past work. The grids can frequently help older, less educated claimants win approval. For instance, someone age 50 who has only done unskilled work in the past will be found disabled even if they have a sedentary RFC. For more information, see our series of articles on how to win benefits using the grid rules.

    Updated January 3, 2023

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