Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) is an auto-immune disorder where the body attacks its own nervous system. As a result, peripheral nerves—the nerves that lie outside of your brain and spinal cord—become inflamed, which leads to muscle weakness.
GBS is rare and can't be cured, but the symptoms can often be controlled with therapeutic procedures, such as intravenous immunoglobulin. The treatment consists of a transfusion with donated blood containing healthy immune antibodies.
Most people will be able to recover from GBS symptoms within six to twelve months. But others might need several years to recover from the nerve damage caused by GBS. If you've been unable to work full-time for at least twelve months due to GBS, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
The most common symptom of Guillain-Barre syndrome is muscle weakness and paralysis that generally starts in the legs and moves to the arms. People usually first notice tingling or pain in the feet or hands. When the inflammation affects the muscles in the chest and diaphragm, difficulty breathing can occur.
Other symptoms that may occur with GBS include:
Complications from GBS may also include permanent paralysis, aspiration (having food or drinks go into your lungs when you're eating or drinking), or tightening of the joint muscles that can limit movement.
In order to get disability benefits, your Guillain-Barre syndrome must have lasted or be expected to last for at least twelve months. If you recover fully with treatment within one year, you won't qualify. You'll also need to be financially eligible for the type of program you're applying for—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
Once you've shown that you meet the non-medical requirements to receive disability, you can receive disability benefits in one of two ways: meet the requirements of a disability listing or show that you're unable to do any type of work.
Social Security keeps a list (called the "Blue Book") of certain medical impairments that automatically qualify for disability. If your medical record contains specific evidence that matches the requirements of a particular listing, the agency will find that you're disabled without having to see whether you can do any kind of work.
While the Blue Book doesn't contain a specific listing for Guillain-Barre syndrome, you can still qualify if the underlying cause of your GBS is a listed impairment. Even if the primary cause of your GBS isn't in the Blue Book, in severe cases, the syndrome can cause permanent impairments—some of which do have Blue Book listings.
Some common causes and complications of GBS that are considered listed impairments include:
If you meet the requirements of any of these listings, you'll qualify for disability.
You can still qualify for Social Security disability benefits without meeting a listing if your GBS symptoms or complications prevent you from doing any type of work. To decide whether you can work, Social Security will review your medical records for evidence of functional limitations, a process called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC).
What's in an RFC? Your RFC is a set of restrictions on what you can and can't do in a work setting. People with Guillain-Barre syndrome can experience muscle weakness, numbness, clumsiness, and poor reflexes—physical symptoms that can affect your ability to lift objects, use a keyboard, and be on your feet at work.
The more severe your symptoms are, the more restrictions you'll have in your RFC. For example, somebody with mild to moderate muscle weakness in their legs might be limited to light work that allows them to sit half of the workday. But somebody with muscle weakness, breathing difficulty, blurred vision, and poor reflexes might not be able to perform even fully sedentary jobs.
Social Security will consider all of your medical conditions combined when determining what limitations to include in your RFC. Mental restrictions, including any difficulty you have concentrating due to pain, should also be a part of your RFC.
How does Social Security use your RFC? The agency will compare the restrictions in your current RFC with your past work history to see whether you could do those jobs now. If you can't perform your past job duties anymore, then Social Security will need to determine whether any other jobs exist that you can do despite the restrictions in your RFC.
For most disability applicants younger than 50 years old, this means you'll need to show that you can't do the least demanding sit-down jobs—what Social Security calls unskilled sedentary work—even if you've never done that type of job before. But older applicants may be able to qualify for disability benefits without needing to rule out those jobs under a special set of circumstances called the medical-vocational guidelines ("the grid").
Under the grid rules, Social Security will look at factors such as your age, education, and whether you have skills that could transfer to other work. If you don't have any transferable skills, the agency can find you disabled even if you're physically able to perform easier work. You can learn more about how the rules work in our article on the medical-vocational grid.
Social Security has several easy ways to apply for disability benefits:
No matter how you apply, you'll need to have certain information on hand at the time that you complete the disability application, including contact information for your medical providers and dates for all medical treatment you've obtained. For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.
Updated August 17, 2023