One way to get disability benefits for back problems is to meet the requirements of Social Security's disability listing for disorders of the spine. This disability listing provides for approval of benefits only for back problems that cause arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, or nerve root compression. This article is about nerve root compression. Example of back problems that cause nerve root compression are herniated discs, fractures of vertebrae, degenerative joint disease, and facet arthritis.
To get disability based on a spinal disorder with nerve root compression, you must have evidence that your spinal nerve root is compressed and that the compressed nerve is causing pain to radiate, your range of motion to be limited, your reflexes or sensations to be dulled, and your muscles to be atrophied or weakened. In addition, if the lower spine is where the nerve root is compressed, your medical records should show that you have a positive straight-leg rising test (lying down or sitting).
This is not an easy disability listing to "meet," even though you are not technically required to have an MRI showing evidence of nerve root impingement on a MRI. If you don't have evidence of nerve root impingement on your MRI, you can still apply for disability. If your back pain has prevented you from working for twelve continuous months or you expect that it will prevent you from working for twelve continuous months or more, you should file your claim.
If there isn't enough evidence in your medical record to meet the listing for nerve root compression -- for example because your treating doctor hasn't noted whether you have muscle weakness or loss of deep tendon reflexes -- you may still be able to win disability benefits through a "medical-vocational allowance." In fact, approval for Social Security disability is more often based on an individual's ability to function more than on specific medical diagnoses and tests (that is, through a disability listing).
If your back pain causes significant limitations to your functional capacity, such as not being able to bend or stoop, not being able to stand or sit for long periods, or not being able to walk without crutches or a wheelchair, make sure these limitations are in your medical records. If these limitations make it impossible for you to perform any of your past relevant work or any other type substantial work activity, you could win your disability through a medical-vocational approval. Disability claims examiners consider your age, education, work history, and residual functional capacity, or RFC (what you can do in spite of the limitations caused by your back condition), when making this type of medical determination. For more information, see our article on reduced functional capacity due to back problems or how to get disability through reduced functional capacity and medical-vocational allowances in general.