The Social Security Administration has a list of medical conditions, both physical and mental, that are considered disabling lists. This listing manual, sometimes called the "Blue Book," lays out the criteria for the symptoms, tests, and limitations that an applicant must have to meet the requirements of each listed impairment. An applicant who meets the criteria will automatically qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. In other words, applicants who meet a listing don't need to show that their limitations prevent them from doing their prior job or adjusting to a new type of work.
The listing manual, which has been updated for 2021, includes:
For articles on getting disability for many of the above common conditions, some of which are in the Blue Book and some of which aren't, see our section on Medical Conditions, Impairments, and Problems.
If your disability is listed in Social Security's Listing of Impairments, the first step is to get a diagnosis of the condition from your doctor. But a mere diagnosis will get you an automatic disability approval for only a few conditions, however, like the following:
For all other conditions, Social Security will look past your diagnosis to determine if your medical condition meets the specific criteria, such as having certain x-ray or test results, for that impairment. The criteria often include physical limitations and cognitive limitations. The listing requirements are often quite complex; our illness-specific articles simplify the medical criteria laid out in the listings so that you can understand whether your condition will qualify for disability.
If you haven't had the clinical or laboratory tests required in a listing, you can ask your doctor to perform them. Or you can wait for Social Security to pay for a consultative exam, but this makes your claim take longer. It's generally better if the key test results are already in your medical record before you apply. That way you can check to see if your test results meet the requirements of the listing, and if they match the criteria or are close, you can apply for disability.
An applicant filing for Social Security disability benefits does not necessarily have to satisfy the exact listing requirements for a particular illness or condition to be awarded disability benefits based on the condition. You can be awarded disability benefits if Social Security considers aspects of your condition medically equivalent to the criteria in the listing or a related listing. This is called "equaling a disability listing." (But according to recent government statistics, 37% of all approved disability applications "met" a listing and only 6% "equaled" a listing.)
Alternatively, you can be eligible for disability benefits if you don't meet or equal the criteria for the medical listing, if your condition limits your functioning so much that you can't work. Social Security will consider the effect of your condition on your capacity to perform routine daily activities and work and will then determine whether there is any kind of job you can safely be expected to do. This is called qualifying "vocationally" for disability benefits. For more information, see our section on how Social Security decides if your limitations make you disabled. (In a recent year, half of all approved disability applications were approved vocationally—based on an assessment of applicants' limitations and the jobs available.)
A Social Security disability applicant doesn't have to have an impairment that is listed in Social Security's listing of impairments to be awarded disability benefits. For instance, migraine headaches are not included in a listing, but if an applicant's migraines are severe enough and are well documented, Social Security may grant disability benefits if the migraines make it impossible for the disability applicant to work a full-time job.
The keys to getting benefits for a condition that doesn't have a listing are that the condition must:
Social Security determines your RFC by looking at how much you can lift and carry and how long you can walk and stand. Then the agency assigns you an "exertional level"—heavy, medium, light, or sedentary. If your exertional level doesn't allow you to do any jobs that you're suited for, you can qualify for benefits vocationally.
Other common impairments that aren't listed in Social Security's blue book include carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic regional pain syndrome, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, celiac disease, and degenerative disc disease.
While any of the above medical conditions are SSDI and SSI qualifying disabilities, some medical conditions are more likely to lead to an approval of benefits than others. We recently surveyed our readers about their experiences in applying for disability benefits and compared their answers to government statistics. The conditions most likely to get approved were multiple sclerosis and some types of cancers. Respiratory disorders (like COPD) and joint disease (like arthritis in the hip and back) were also high on the list. For the details, see our article on survey statistics on getting Social Security disability for common medical conditions.
You need to have current medical records that show at least some of the following:
If you've been seeing a doctor regularly, have a conversation with your doctor about your limitations (such as not being able to lift 30 pounds or stand for three hours), and make sure your doctor records all of your limitations in your medical records. Ask whether your doctor thinks your limitations rule out full-time work for you. If your doctor agrees, it's time to apply for disability benefits.
If you haven't been seeing a doctor, now is the time to start. You need to have a lengthy medical record that supports your claim, including your diagnoses, your limitations, your test results, and your treatment plans. Once you've had several doctors' appointments, ask if your doctor thinks your limitations are disabling and about your long-term prospects for work. Only then should you apply for disability.
There are three ways to apply for Social Security benefits:
Before you apply, make sure you have the names and addresses of all doctors and clinics you've visited over the last five years, and the names and addresses of your employers from the last 15 years. But applying for benefits involves much more than filling out the disability application. The most important step you can take is to make sure that you have enough medical records for Social Security to make a decision on your claim.
If you'd like help with your application or with getting the right tests into your medical record, think about working with an SSDI expert. According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time. Click for a free case evaluation with a legal professional to determine if your medical condition qualifies for benefits.
Updated September 13, 2021