What Is Syncope and Is It Eligible for Disability?

Ongoing, severe symptoms of syncope may reduce the types of jobs you're able to do.

By , J.D. · The Colleges of Law
Updated 9/28/2023

Syncope, also known as fainting or passing out, is a temporary loss of consciousness and muscle strength in the body. Fainting spells typically come on quickly, are short-lived, and are spontaneously recovered from. Near-syncope is the sensation that you're about to faint. You might feel lightheaded and weak but don't lose consciousness.

While syncope and near-syncope are typically well treated with medications and avoiding certain triggers, severe cases can significantly interfere with your activities of daily living. If your syncope keeps you from working full-time for at least 12 months, you might be eligible for Social Security disability benefits.

Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Syncope

Syncope is caused by decreased blood flow to the brain. Common types of syncope include:

  • Vasovagal syncope. The most common type of syncope, vasovagal syncope is typically triggered by intense emotional stress, fear, or pain. Vasovagal syncope can also be brought on by heavy physical activity or prolonged standing.
  • Orthostatic syncope or postural syncope (also known as postural hypotension). Postural or orthostatic syncope can occur when there's a sudden drop in blood pressure in the body, usually brought on by standing up too quickly.
  • Cardiac syncope is caused by inadequate blood flow to the brain as the result of an underlying heart or blood vessel condition, such as tachycardia or bradycardia (fast or slow heart rate), arrhythmia (irregular heart rate), myocardial ischemia (narrowed arteries), or hypotension (low blood pressure).
  • Neurologic syncope is the result of nervous system disorders, such as autonomic dysfunction.

While the above types of syncope have different causes, they share similar symptoms. The most common syncope symptoms include:

  • fainting
  • lightheadedness
  • falling or tripping
  • dizziness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • body weakness
  • blurry or tunnel vision, and
  • headaches.

Treatment options for syncope vary based on the kind of syncope you have. For vasovagal syncope, treatment may simply include rest and avoiding rigorous exercise. Postural or orthostatic syncope treatment might involve increasing water and salt intake and wearing compression stockings. Cardiac syncope treatment can include medication or surgery to address underlying heart disease.

Can You Get Disability for Syncope?

If you're under the age of 50 and applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you can be approved in one of two ways:

  • your condition meets or matches a listed impairment (you're "medically disabled"), or
  • your condition prevents you from being able to work full-time at any job (you're "vocationally disabled").

Meeting a Medical Listing for a Condition Related to Syncope

Social Security's Listing of Impairments—also known as the Blue Book—contains medical criteria the agency uses to evaluate disabling conditions in adults. If you meet the criteria of a listing, you'll automatically qualify for benefits as long as you satisfy the non-medical requirements for SSDI or SSI.

Syncope isn't a condition with its own listing in the Blue Book. But because syncope is caused by issues with blood circulation, Social Security may evaluate symptoms of syncope under one of the cardiovascular listings. In particular, the listing for recurrent arrhythmias requires that your medical records document a history of uncontrolled (not effectively treated with medication), recurrent (occurring repeatedly) episodes of syncope in order to qualify automatically for disability benefits.

Or, if your syncope is the result of an underlying nerve disorder, you might meet a listing for neurological problems.

Syncope and Your Residual Functional Capacity

You can still qualify for disability benefits due to syncope even if you don't meet (or "equal") one of the listings—if you can show that your symptoms keep you from full-time work. If Social Security doesn't find that you're disabled according to a listing, the agency will then need to assess your residual functional capacity (RFC).

Your RFC is a set of restrictions on the types of tasks you can do in a work environment. For example, somebody with syncope might have an RFC that would limit them from doing jobs that require working at heights, operating heavy machinery, or driving. They might also be limited from a job requiring frequent postural changes (going from sitting to standing).

Keep in mind that even with an RFC that rules out risky jobs, it will still be difficult to get benefits based only on syncope if you're under 50. That's because Social Security needs to see that you can't do even the easiest, sit-down jobs, which don't typically involve exposure to hazards that are unsafe for somebody with syncope. You'll have the most success if you have other impairments that you can combine with your syncope impairment.

How Age Can Impact Your Ability to Get Benefits

The older you are, the easier it is to get approved for disability benefits. If you're over the age of 50 (or pretty close to it under the borderline age rule), Social Security will apply a set of guidelines called the medical-vocational grid to determine whether you're disabled.

Using the grid rules, you can get disability benefits even if you can physically perform a job that's easier than your past job, if you don't have any transferable skills. For example, if you're a 54-year-old former construction worker who can no longer work around power tools or at heights due to syncope, Social Security is unlikely to find that you can use your construction skills at a sit-down desk job. According to the grid rules, somebody your age with your work history who doesn't have transferable skills is considered disabled.

Filing for Disability Due to Syncope

There are four ways you can file your application for Social Security benefits:

  • File for disability online through Social Security's website.
  • Complete the application over the phone at 888-772-1213, between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. (People who are deaf or hard of hearing can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.)
  • Apply in person at your local Social Security office.
  • Hire an attorney or representative to file your application for you.

When you apply, you'll have to enter a lot of personal info like your name, address, and Social Security number. You'll also be required to list your full work history, income for the last three years, doctors you've seen, and the types of medical treatments you've received. For more tips, check out our article on how to apply for Social Security disability benefits.

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