Not everybody with multiple sclerosis (MS) loses the ability to move independently or to see well enough to drive. The unpredictable nature of MS means that symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe.
People with severe MS that causes them to have significant difficulty with basic motor functions likely won't have too much trouble qualifying for Social Security disability. For people with mild or moderate symptoms, winning a claim for disability benefits takes more effort. You'll need to show that your MS symptoms prevent you from working at any job.
Because MS symptoms have varying degrees of severity, the Social Security Administration (SSA) can't approve claims where the applicant hasn't demonstrated that their MS symptoms prevent them from working any job full-time. Some people with milder forms of MS can (and do) work full-time, so documenting your medical treatment is particularly important to show the SSA the entire extent of your limitations.
Your medical record is the foundation of your disability application. Without medical evidence showing that you're experiencing signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis, the SSA doesn't know if your MS causes limitations that keep you from working.
One of the most important things you can do to help your case is to talk about your symptoms with your healthcare providers. Below are some common symptoms of mild or moderate MS that can affect one's ability to work, but are not often reported to doctors.
Because MS doesn't yet have a cure, treatment normally involves managing symptoms with immunosuppressant or anti-inflammatory medications. Make sure that you're letting your doctors know about any side effects you might have from your medications. The SSA must take your side effects into consideration when determining whether you can work.
Social Security can't award disability benefits based just on reported symptoms, especially if your symptoms are mild or moderate. The agency also needs to see objective medical imaging and tests that support your MS diagnosis.
While no single test currently exists that can identify MS, the SSA will look for evidence of blood tests, MRIs, cerebrospinal fluid tests, and neurological exams that your doctor used to rule out other disorders and arrive at a diagnosis of MS. If you're experiencing symptoms of vision loss or mental changes, for example, the SSA will look for medical records from specialists in those fields such as notes from your eye doctor or psychologist.
Social Security values the opinions of doctors who treat you regularly and can provide insight into the way your MS symptoms are limiting you. You can help the SSA better understand your restrictions by having your doctors fill out and submit a medical source statement.
If your doctors agree to fill out a medical source statement, have them explain their opinion by addressing specific evidence in your medical record—like your progress notes—so that the SSA can see why your doctors arrived at their opinion. For applicants with MS, the statement should include:
Avoid having your doctors write a blanket note such as "My patient is disabled" or "My patient can't work due to MS." Social Security doesn't consider such vague statements to be persuasive because they don't address specific limitations.
When you first apply for disability benefits, the SSA will send you a form called a function report that asks you about your activities of daily living (ADLs). The agency asks about your ADLs in order to get a better understanding of what you struggle to do on a regular basis, which helps the SSA determine what you'd have difficulty doing in a work setting.
Be honest, but specific, when completing the function report. The SSA wants a truthful account of how you spend your time in order to make an accurate assessment of your residual functional capacity (RFC).
Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflect the most that you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work setting. Social Security will take your doctor's opinions, your medical records, and your function report into consideration when determining your RFC, so it's in your best interest to be as detailed as possible when describing your ADLs.
The function report doesn't leave much room for answers, so you should use the space wisely. Most disability applicants can honestly reply "yes" when asked if they can drive, but that doesn't paint the whole picture. For example, you might be able to drive short distances during the day, but your vision keeps you from driving at night, and numbness in your hands means you can't grip the steering wheel for longer than 30 minutes.
Social Security will use your RFC to determine whether you're capable of performing your past work. If the agency doesn't think you can do any of the jobs you've performed in the past, the SSA will then see if you can do any other jobs in the national economy. For more information, see our article on how the SSA uses your functional limitations to decide whether you're disabled.
For applicants with mild or moderate multiple sclerosis, limitations from their MS alone might not be enough for the SSA to determine whether they're disabled. But many people with MS have additional disorders—known as comorbidities—that can, when combined, amplify the symptoms of MS to the point that they're unable to work.
Social Security is required to consider the combined effects of all your impairments when determining whether you're disabled. Common disorders that are often comorbid with MS include:
If you receive medical attention for the above (or any additional) conditions, let the SSA know. The agency will obtain records from providers who treat you for disorders other than MS and incorporate any limitations from them into your RFC when determining whether you can work.
Symptoms from multiple sclerosis can come and go. Some people with mild or moderate MS find that they can work for weeks or even months at a time before experiencing a debilitating flare-up of symptoms.
You can work and receive disability benefits as long as you don't earn above what Social Security calls substantial gainful activity (SGA). In 2023, any work where you earn greater than $1,470 per month qualifies as SGA.
If you're currently working, you can't qualify for disability benefits until you haven't worked at the level of SGA for at least twelve months (or if the SSA believes you won't be able to work for at least one year). If your application for disability is approved and you later start working at or above the SGA level, Social Security can stop sending your monthly benefit checks.
The process of applying for disability can be frustrating and occasionally demoralizing. You'll need to write or talk about your limitations on your disability application, which (statistically speaking) will be denied at least once in the process.
Many applicants struggle with speaking frankly about the problems they encounter in daily life. Having an experienced disability attorney by your side to help you through the process can be invaluable. Your representative can help gather your medical records, handle communications with Social Security on your behalf, and advocate for you at a disability hearing.
For additional information about MS, see our article on applying for disability benefits with multiple sclerosis.
Updated February 6, 2023