Can You Get Social Security Disability Benefits for Anemia?

If your anemia or related conditions are severe enough to keep you from working, you may be able to get disability benefits.

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

Anemia is a condition that occurs when your blood does not have enough red blood cells—the main transporters of oxygen to the organs of the body. Over time, anemia can also cause a worsening of existing heart problems.

Anemia is very common, but it affects different people in different ways. People who've had a gradual reduction in red blood cells might not have many symptoms, even if their red blood cell count is low, because their body has had time to adapt. But other people might have severe symptoms or complications that affect their ability to work or perform routine daily tasks.

Is Anemia a Disability?

If you can't work full-time for at least twelve months as a result of a severe medical impairment, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits (SSDI or SSI).

Mild cases of anemia aren't usually enough to qualify for disability by themselves. But if your mild anemia makes other, related conditions—such as heart problems—worse, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will take that into consideration when determining whether you're disabled. And if you have severe anemia that requires frequent blood transfusions, the agency is more likely to find that your anemia is disabling.

Types of Anemia

Anemia can be acute (rapid onset, but short-term) or chronic (gradual onset, but long-term). For example, excessive bleeding—such as from a gunshot wound or soft tissue injury—often causes acute anemia, which typically improves quickly after a transfusion.

Chronic anemia usually involves disorders that decrease the body's production of red blood cells, or destroy the red blood cells already produced. Chronic anemia has a variety of causes, including:

Anemia is frequently diagnosed with a test that measures the amount of certain proteins (such as hemoglobin) in your blood. Make sure that you submit the results of your blood tests to Social Security in order to support your disability application.

Symptoms of Anemia That Can Be Disabling

You might not experience any symptoms if your anemia is mild or progresses gradually. But if your body isn't regularly getting enough oxygen, you might:

  • tire out easily or feel short of breath
  • have headaches
  • struggle with thinking and concentrating
  • lose your appetite, and
  • experience numbness or tingling in your hands and feet.

If inadequately treated, you might have more visible signs of anemia, such as:

  • a bluish appearance in the sclera (white part of the eyes)
  • pale skin color
  • brittle nails
  • inflammation of the tongue, and
  • mouth ulcers.

Your medical records should document all the treatment you've received for your anemia (or underlying disorders). Social Security reviews your doctors' notes for evidence of anemia symptoms. The more severe your symptoms are, the more likely you'll be to qualify for disability benefits.

Getting Disability for Anemia by Meeting a Listed Impairment

One of the ways you can get disability benefits is by meeting a listed impairment. Listed impairments are medical conditions that Social Security considers especially serious. If your medical record contains evidence (usually specific test results) that meets the requirements of a listed impairment, you'll be automatically approved for disability.

Social Security no longer has a unique listing for general chronic anemia. Instead, the agency now evaluates most cases of anemia under the Blue Book's section 7.00, for hematological (blood) disorders.

If you don't have any of the above types of anemias, you may meet the requirements of listing 7.18 for repeated complications of hematological disorders. Severe, chronic anemia can qualify under this listing if it results in problems such as:

  • osteonecrosis ("bone death")
  • retinopathy (damage to blood vessels in the eye)
  • skin ulcers (wounds or sores caused by poor blood flow)
  • silent central nervous system infarction (a stroke without any outward symptoms)
  • cognitive or other mental limitations (such as forgetfulness), or
  • reduced joint movement.

The above complications must also cause significant, documented signs or symptoms like:

  • pain
  • severe fatigue
  • malaise (a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or lack of well-being)
  • fever
  • night sweats
  • joint or muscle swelling
  • headaches, or
  • shortness of breath.

Finally, in order to meet listing 7.18, you'll need to show that you have a "marked" (intense, but not debilitating) functional limitation in at least one of the following areas:

While the listing doesn't require specific blood test results, you should have medical records showing low hemoglobin levels or low hematocrit (the percentage of oxygenated cells in your blood). That way, Social Security knows that your symptoms and limitations are rooted in a physical abnormality.

Alternatively, you can meet the requirements of a listing for an impairment caused by anemia, such as a cardiovascular listing or a respiratory listing. And because anemia is often a result of a condition that is itself a listed impairment—such as advanced kidney disease—you may be able to meet the listing for the underlying condition.

Getting Disability for Anemia by Being Unable to Return to Work

Few people who are awarded disability benefits are able to meet (or "equal") the criteria of a listed impairment. But even if you don't meet the requirements of a disability listing, you can still get disability if you can show that you can't do any work because of your reduced residual functional capacity (RFC).

What's In Your RFC?

Your RFC is a set of restrictions that reflects the most you're able to do safely in a work environment. Social Security reviews your medical records and your activities of daily living in order to determine what you can do and what you should avoid at work.

Anemia can have a significant impact on your ability to walk short distances and lift light objects. Any limitations you have in how long you can be on your feet or how much weight you can carry will be reflected in your RFC as your exertional level. Restrictions on the types of activities that you can do that aren't strength-related (such as using your fingers or bending at the waist) are called non-exertional limitations.

Most disability applicants will have both exertional and non-exertional limitations in their RFC. Social Security is required to consider all your conditions combined when assessing your RFC, so make sure you let the agency know about any other disorders or diseases (in addition to anemia) that you're getting medical treatment for.

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC?

Once Social Security has written up the paragraph (or two) of restrictions that make up your RFC, the agency will look at your past work to see whether you could do those jobs with your current limitations. If you're still capable of doing any of the jobs you've done in the past 15 years, Social Security can't award you disability benefits, and you'll receive a denial letter.

If you aren't able to return to your past work, you're not out of the woods yet, however. Depending on your age, education, and work experience, you'll either need to show that:

Applicants who are closer to retirement age may be able to take advantage of the medical-vocational rules to get disability without having to show they can't work at any job. Most people under the age of 50 will need to show that they would be too unproductive for potential employers at any full-time position.

Applying for Disability Benefits Due to Anemia

You have four options for filing an application for Social Security benefits:

  • File 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.

It's a good idea to gather as much relevant information as possible before you sit down to file or meet with an attorney. Making a list of your employment history and compiling your medical records before you file will make the process go more smoothly. For additional tips, check out our article on how to apply for Social Security disability benefits.

Updated August 21, 2023

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