Social Security Disability (SSDI & SSI) for Lyme Disease

Advanced stages of Lyme disease may cause complications that can qualify you for SSDI or SSI.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that is transmitted through the bite of a deer tick (also known as a black-legged tick). When caught early, Lyme disease can be effectively treated with antibiotic medication. Left untreated, however, symptoms of Lyme disease can progress and cause complications that interfere with your daily functioning.

If you're unable to work full-time for at least 12 months due to the symptoms, complications, or treatment of Lyme disease, you may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Disabling Symptoms of Lyme Disease

Symptoms of Lyme disease are categorized according to three stages. The symptoms of each stage can vary from person to person (and may overlap somewhat). Each stage has progressively worse symptoms that can cause significant impairments.

Stage One Symptoms

Stage one symptoms usually begin within 3 to 30 days after being bitten. Most people realize they've been bitten because a rash develops at the site of the tick bite that slowly spreads in a circular or "bulls-eye" pattern. This stage of Lyme disease is also called "early localized infection," because it hasn't yet spread throughout the body.

At this stage, you'll experience flu-like symptoms that can include headaches, fever, muscle aches, joint stiffness, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, and an overall feeling of being ill ("malaise"). Treatment at this stage typically involves taking an oral antibiotic, typically doxycycline, for 10-14 days.

Stage Two Symptoms

Stage two symptoms begin around 3 to 10 weeks after being bitten. Also known as "early disseminated infection," these more severe symptoms reflect that the disease has become more widespread in the body.

Symptoms of stage two Lyme disease include the symptoms of stage one in addition to the following:

  • rashes on other parts of the body
  • neck pain or stiffness
  • irregular heartbeats
  • painful swelling in the eyes or eyelids
  • numbness or weakness in the hands or feet
  • vision loss, and
  • facial palsy (muscle weakness in the face, leading to a "droopy" appearance).

Treatment involves administration of antibiotics, oral or intravenously, for 14-21 days.

Stage Three Symptoms

Stage three symptoms can take two months to one year to fully manifest. This stage is also called "late disseminated disease" because the infection has spread extensively throughout the body.

Stage three includes the same symptoms as those of stages one and two, along with the development of arthritis in the large joints (particularly the knees). Treatment often involves several four-week courses of oral antibiotics, but in some cases, the arthritis doesn't respond to additional antibiotics.

Lyme Disease Complications

Later stages of Lyme disease can affect the body's central nervous system, potentially causing meningitis (swelling of the protective membrane surrounding the brain), encephalitis (brain inflammation), cranial nerve damage, and radiculoneuropathy (spinal cord nerve degeneration). Even if your Lyme disease was successfully treated, residual complications from your previous infection can result in significant limitations.

Prolonged symptoms as a result of Lyme infection are called by several different names, including myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, or post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS). These symptoms can be physical, mental, or (commonly) both, including:

  • numbness and pain in the joints, hands, and feet
  • significant fatigue and weakness
  • bladder problems
  • dizziness
  • cognitive impairments, such as forgetfulness and trouble concentrating
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • mood changes, and
  • mental disorders such as paranoia, depression, or schizophrenia.

Treatment for these complications depends on the specific symptoms and how severe they are. For example, symptoms of dizziness might be reduced by managing your liquid intake and the amount of salt in your diet, while stimulant medications (such as those used to treat ADHD) can help with memory and concentration problems.

Can You Get Disability for Lyme Disease?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) can find you disabled in one of two ways: you have medical evidence showing that you meet the requirements of a listed impairment in Social Security's "Blue Book," or your symptoms limit your abilities so much that you can't do any job.

Before the SSA can find that you meet the agency's definition of disability, however, you'll need to satisfy some preliminary eligibility requirements. One requirement is that you have a 12-month period where you didn't earn above the substantial gainful activity threshold (about $1,550 per month). You'll also need to show that you're financially eligible to receive the type of benefit you're seeking—SSDI eligibility is based on your work history, while SSI is needs-based.

Getting Disability by Meeting or Equaling a Listing

Listed impairments are diseases or disorders that the SSA considers serious enough to be automatically disabling with certain medical evidence. Because Lyme disease is often effectively treated with antibiotics in early stages, it doesn't have its own Blue Book listing. That means that it's unlikely someone with mild to moderate Lyme disease would get an automatic approval.

For disability applicants with advanced Lyme disease, however, the SSA could evaluate their claims under several listing categories related to complications or residual effects from the disease. Examples include the following:

  • If you have significant limitations in your ability to walk or use your arms, you might meet a listing in Section 1.00 for musculoskeletal system disorders.
  • If Lyme disease caused damage to your heart, you could meet a listing in Section 4.00 for disorders of the cardiovascular system.
  • If you have one of the cognitive or mood problems that can be caused by Lyme disease, you might meet a listing in Section 12.00 for mental disorders.
  • If you have severe inflammatory arthritis in the knees (or other joint, tissue, or organ inflammation), you could meet a listing in Section 14.00 for immune system disorders.

If you suspect your Lyme disease symptoms are severe enough to meet (or "equal") one of the above listings, it's a good idea to review the listing criteria with your doctor to see if they agree. And if your doctor does think that you meet or equal a listing, having them write a letter to that effect can be very helpful for your case

Getting Disability by Showing That You Can't Work Full-Time

Even if you don't meet a listing, you may have so many functional restrictions due to Lyme disease that you can't return to work. Social Security will evaluate your abilities and limitations to determine if all of your impairments combined prevent you from being able to work—a process called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a description of what you can and can't do, physically and mentally, in a work setting.

Your Physical RFC

Any physical symptoms that are documented in your medical records should be included in your RFC. For people with Lyme disease, this often means restrictions on lifting, carrying, standing, and walking caused by common symptoms such as muscle pain, limb weakness, and joint swelling.

Numbness in the hands and feet can limit your ability to perform fine motor skills like typing, and facial palsy can affect your eyesight. Additionally, sleep difficulties, heart problems, and significant fatigue may make it hard to do even the least strenuous activities at work.

Your Mental RFC

The effects of Lyme disease on your mental abilities can make workplace functioning difficult. If the SSA finds evidence in your record of memory loss, reduced concentration, and difficulty completing tasks, the agency will include these limitations in your RFC as well. Likewise, panic attacks, anxiety, delusions, or detachment from reality can cause problems interacting with coworkers, responding properly to supervision, and maintaining attendance.

How Social Security Uses Your RFC

After Social Security has included all of your limitations in your RFC, the agency compares your RFC to the duties of your past jobs to see if you can still do them. If not, the agency considers additional factors such as your age, education, and job skills to determine if you can switch to other, less demanding work. If you can't make the switch—or you can't do even a simple, sit-down job—you should be able to get disability benefits.

Applying for Disability Benefits for Lyme Disease

The SSA has several methods for you to start a disability application:

  • File online at the Social Security website.
  • Call 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, to speak with a representative.
  • Go in person to your local Social Security field office.

If you want help filing your application (or you've already been denied and want to appeal), consider hiring an experienced disability attorney. Your lawyer can handle all communications with the SSA, gather additional medical evidence, and represent you at a disability hearing.

Updated February 1, 2024

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