Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs) Rarely Qualify for Social Security Disability

Social Security disability isn’t usually available for those with multiple TIAs, but it's possible to get disability benefits in some cases.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

A transient ischemic attack, or TIA, occurs when blood flow to the brain is slowed or stops. TIAs are sometimes also referred to as "mini-strokes" because the symptoms mirror stroke symptoms.

Unlike a stroke, TIAs don't usually cause permanent damage, and symptoms often resolve within 24 hours. But those who experience TIAs are more likely to suffer full strokes later on. And, although it's rare, multiple TIAs can sometimes be disabling.

Can You Get Disability for a Mini-Stroke?

Mini-strokes generally aren't considered disabilities on their own because the blockage of blood flow to the brain is very short-lived, and there's generally no permanent damage. But about 15% of TIA patients are disabled 90 days after a transient ischemic attack.

So, most people who've had one mini-stroke aren't likely to meet the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) definition of disabled because the effects don't last long enough. But having a TIA can indicate that future disability is more likely, and in some cases, having a series of TIAs might qualify as disabling (more on this below).

TIA Symptoms and Causes

Like with strokes, TIA symptoms come on suddenly. And they can include any of the following:

  • confusion
  • trouble speaking or understanding
  • weakness in arms or legs (usually on one side of the body)
  • trouble seeing
  • difficulty walking
  • dizziness, and
  • loss of balance or coordination.

There's no way to tell immediately if these symptoms indicate a stroke or mini-stroke. Stroke effects can be fatal and debilitating, but they can often be mitigated if treated right away. So, it's vital to seek immediate help if you experience any of these symptoms.

If you're over 55, you have a greater risk of having a transient ischemic attack. And TIAs are more common in men than in women. Other risk factors for TIAs include the following:

A family history of stroke also puts you at greater risk of developing transient ischemic attacks.

How to Meet the Basic Requirements for Social Security Disability

To win your disability claim, you must prove that you have a medically determinable impairment that's so severe that you can't work enough to earn more than about $1,500 a month. If you can work and earn above this limit, Social Security considers it substantial gainful activity (SGA).

You won't necessarily be found disabled if you aren't earning more than the SGA limit, but Social Security won't even consider your claim if you earn more than that. Also, your disabling medical condition must have lasted, or be expected to last, for at least 12 consecutive months.

The medical requirements are the same for both federal disability programs: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability (SSDI). But the legal and financial requirements for the programs differ.

SSI is for people with little work history or income and limited resources. SSDI is for people who have worked long enough for companies that have paid Social Security taxes (FICA). Self-employed people who've paid self-employment taxes to the SSA can also get SSDI if they otherwise qualify.

Medical Evidence You Need to Prove Disability

Social Security will rely heavily on the medical evidence in your file to determine if your impairment meets the legal definition of disabling. To prove you're disabled, you'll need to show Social Security objective medical evidence from acceptable medical sources, as defined by the SSA.

Acceptable medical sources can include doctors (M.D. or D.O.), advanced practice registered nurses (within their licensed scope of practice), and physician assistants (within their licensed scope of practice).

For transient ischemic attacks, Social Security will need to see your doctor's examination notes and diagnosis. Your medical file should contain documentation of when your TIAs began (to show you meet the 12-month duration rule). You'll also need objective evidence, such as diagnostic tests, including some or all of the following tests:

  • CAT scan or CT angiogram (CTA)
  • MRI or MRA
  • carotid ultrasound (Doppler ultrasound), or
  • echocardiogram (ECHO).

If you haven't had the diagnostic testing Social Security expects to see, or if your test results are more than a few months old, Social Security will likely schedule a consultative exam (CE) to get the needed test results. You must show up for the scheduled CE or have an extremely good reason for missing it (like a death in the family).

Social Security will also want to see evidence that you're continuing to receive medical care for your TIAs and that you're following prescribed treatment.

Can I Get SSDI or SSI Disability for Having TIAs?

Because the symptoms related to TIAs generally last no more than 24 hours and don't cause permanent brain damage, it's unlikely that you can get approved for disability because of TIAs alone. The short-term nature of TIA symptoms makes meeting Social Security's one-year durational requirement challenging.

Frequent, recurrent TIAs might affect your daily functioning for a year or more. But even if you've had more than one TIA, you might be able to do a sit-down job full-time, which could prevent you from getting benefits.

But there is a narrow set of circumstances that might qualify you for disability benefits if you have recurrent TIAs. First, you must prove you can't do your past work. If your job has particular requirements that increase your risk of injury or stroke, Social Security would agree that you can't do your job. That might include jobs that require any of the following:

  • working with heavy objects or dangerous machinery
  • working on ladders or other heights, or
  • frequent driving.

(See our article on when a job's unique features prevent you from doing it.)

If you can't do your past work because of TIAs, you might be able to win your disability claim through a medical-vocational allowance. If you're 50 or older, you can get disability benefits this way if Social Security's "grid rules" indicate that you can't be expected to learn to work at a different type of job.

What Are the Grid Rules?

If you can't work your prior job due to your medical condition, Social Security uses the grid rules (or "grids") to determine disability. The grid rules are based on your functional capacity (your physical and mental abilities—more on this below) and factors like your:

  • age group
  • educational level, and
  • job history.

Social Security uses the grid rules to decide if you should be able to adjust to another type of work. Based on these factors, the grid rules will direct a finding of disabled or not disabled.

Why Does My Age Matter for the Grid Rules?

Your age matters because Social Security believes that the older you are, the more difficult it will be for you to learn a new job. So, older applicants (those over 50) can sometimes qualify as disabled more easily than younger applicants with the same impairments.

How Is My Functional Capacity Determined?

Your residual functional capacity (RFC) means the work activities you can do on a regular and sustained basis despite your illness or injury. Social Security decides your RFC by preparing a report that discusses any limitations your TIAs cause and how your symptoms impact your ability to do specific physical work-related activities (like lifting, carrying, sitting, or standing). Your RFC is a reflection of the kind of work (based on exertion level) that you can still do, rated on the following scale:

  • sedentary
  • light
  • medium, or
  • heavy.

Why Does Social Security Look at My Job History?

Social Security classifies past work as unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled. Generally, the lower the skill level of your past job, the easier it will be to get approved using the grid rules. If you don't have much education or transferable job skills, the grid rules are much more likely to find you qualify for disability—and your odds improve the closer you are to retirement age.

Also, if your job is skilled but the skills required are specific to that job and can't be transferred to another position, you might still be able to get approved under the grids.

But if Social Security decides the skills you learned in your old job can be transferred to another type of work, you'll have a harder time getting approved under the grid rules. That's because when you have transferable job skills, the SSA generally believes you can find other work. And if there's other work you can do, Social Security won't consider you disabled.

How to Apply for Disability for Transient Ischemic Attacks

You can apply for Social Security disability benefits online, in person, or over the phone. Which method is right for you depends on your personal preferences.

Most adults applying for disability benefits can use Social Security's online application. You can apply online from anywhere at any time, and you can pause and restart the application process as often as needed.

You can also make an appointment to apply for SSDI or SSI disability benefits by phone by calling Social Security's national office at 800-772-1213 (for TTY, call 800-325-0778). Or apply in person at your local SSA field office. (Make an appointment first, or you might face long wait times.)

Social Security will ask for your personal information, including your Social Security number (SSN), and information about your job history, medical condition, and medical treatment. You'll also need to sign a release allowing the SSA to gather your medical records. (Learn more about the Social Security disability application process.)

Winning a disability claim based on TIAs alone will be challenging. Depending on the specific facts of your case, an experienced disability attorney might be able to suggest ways to improve your chances. If you decide to talk to an attorney about your case, you can start the process by trying to get a free case evaluation from a disability lawyer.

Updated January 26, 2024

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