Most people who apply for Social Security disability benefits have more than one illness or injury (impairment) keeping them from working full-time. Impairments that aren't limiting enough on their own to qualify you for disability may still help your application, when the combined effects of all of your medical conditions are considered together.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) considers the combined effects of multiple impairments during two steps of the agency's five-step sequential evaluation process:
Social Security is required to consider all impairments that you're receiving medical treatment for when determining whether you're disabled, even those that the agency doesn't consider severe. The SSA must also consider how your disorders relate to each other, because some impairments can exacerbate the symptoms of other conditions.
A common example involves filing for disability for both physical and mental impairments. Even a mild to moderate mental illness can aggravate pain symptoms caused by a physical injury. Likewise, many people develop mental disorders as a response to the limitations caused by their physical impairments. Social Security must take into account the nuances of how your physical and mental conditions interact when reviewing your disability claim.
Social Security maintains a list of conditions that the agency considers especially serious. Known as the listing of impairments or "Blue Book," people who have medical documentation of a listed impairment can be found disabled without having to show that they can't work. Each listing has a set of criteria that need to be met in order to get benefits automatically.
If your medical record doesn't contain the exact test results required by a specific listing, the SSA can't find that you meet that listing. But if you have multiple combined conditions that are close enough to the requirements to be functionally similar, the agency can find that your impairments are "medically equivalent" to the listing criteria. (In Social Security lingo, this is called "equaling" a listing.)
For more information, see our article on getting Social Security benefits by equaling a disability listing.
Even if the combined effects of your different impairments don't equal any specific listing in the Blue Book, you can still qualify for disability if you can show that your multiple conditions prevent you from working. (Having your application for benefits approved in this manner is called a medical-vocational allowance.)
To determine whether you can work, Social Security will look at any functional limitations caused by your conditions and put them in terms an employer would understand, a process called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC describes what you're able to do at work despite the combined effects of all your impairments.
Most RFCs include both exertional and non-exertional restrictions. The more combined restrictions you have in your RFC, the less likely you'll be able to work at any job.
Social Security will use the restrictions in your RFC and compare them with the demands of your past work to determine whether you can do those jobs currently. For example, if your past work required you to lift 50 pounds and your RFC restricts you from carrying more than 20 pounds, the agency will find that you can't perform your past jobs.
Depending on your age, education, and work skills, being unable to perform your past jobs might be enough to get disability benefits under the SSA's medical-vocational grid rules. If the grid rules don't apply to you (or you're under the age of 50), you'll need to show that the combined limitations in your RFC prevent you from doing even the easiest jobs full-time.
For more information on ruling out jobs, see our article on eliminating jobs on cross-examination.
Social Security pays the same amount of benefits regardless of the number of disabling conditions you have. In 2023, the maximum benefit for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is $914 per month, while the maximum Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit is $3,627.
Updated January 17, 2023