Peripheral neuropathy occurs when there is damage to the peripheral nerves, the nerves that carry messages to and from the spinal cord and brain from the rest of the body. When peripheral neuropathy is caused by diabetes mellitus (a common cause), it is called diabetic neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy can also be caused by other metabolic disorders, herpes zoster, HIV, nutritional deficiencies, toxins, cancer (directly or indirectly as a side effect of chemotherapy or radiation), immune disorders, or genetic disorders. Whatever the cause, peripheral neuropathy can be a very debilitating condition that can affect every aspect of an individual's life.
An individual's symptoms depend upon the affected nerves: autonomic, motor, or sensory, and where they are located within the body. Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy that involve the motor nerves might include muscle weakness, loss of coordination, or loss of balance. If an individual's neuropathy involves sensory nerve damage, he or she might experience symptoms such as numbness, tingling, burning, sensitivity to touch, or pain.
Neuropathy associated with diabetes mellitus can affect all peripheral nerves. Diabetic neuropathy symptoms might include numbness and tingling of extremities, loss of sensation, muscle weakness, burning or electric pain sensations, and a variety of other symptoms that can affect nearly every body system.
Limitations caused by peripheral neuropathy include a lessened ability to walk or stand and control muscle movements. In addition, many individuals who suffer from severe peripheral neuropathy injure themselves without knowing it, and this can lead to infections and even amputations. Chronic pain is also an issue for many people with peripheral neuropathy, and this can have an effect on their ability to work.
When your peripheral neuropathy has been severely limiting, there are a couple of ways you can be approved for Social Security disability benefits on the basis of neuropathy.
First, Social Security has a disability listing for peripheral neuropathies in its disability evaluation handbook (the blue book), and if you meet the criteria outlined in the listing, your disability claim will be approved. This listing, listing 11.14, states that you must have peripheral neuropathy that is characterized by either:
Note that marked means worse than moderate, but less than extreme.
Second, if you don't meet the criteria of the disability listing, you may still be approved for Social Security disability if your peripheral neuropathies severely limit you in other ways. In fact, the majority of claims are approved not by meeting the requirements of a listing in the blue book but because of symptoms and limitations caused by the neuropathy. Social Security will examine a claimant's medical history and work history and may conclude that, based on functional limitations, age, education, and work skills, the claimant doesn't possess the ability to return to their past work and can't transition to less demanding work.
For disability applicants whose peripheral neuropathy has affected their balance, coordination, muscle strength, muscle control, ability to walk, or ability to stand effectively, Social Security will likely find them very limited in their ability to work. Whether Social Security will expect them to adjust to less demanding work depends on the skill level of their prior jobs and their age and education. For more information on how Social Security decides whether someone can return to their past work or less demanding work, see our section on how Social Security decides if you can work.