Social Security Disability Benefits for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

If you suffer from IBS alone, it's difficult, but not impossible, to get disability benefits from Social Security.

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects millions of individuals, women more so than men. Often characterized by alternating periods of diarrhea and constipation, the debilitating symptoms of IBS also include abdominal cramping and bloating, and sometimes a significant amount of anxiety and stress. Between 20% and 50% of all visits to the gastroenterologist involve irritable bowel syndrome, and in western countries, most of the patients are female. Note that IBS is not considered a form of the much more serious inflammatory bowel disease, which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, because IBS does not cause inflammation.

Causes of IBS

There are three common types of IBS:

  • diarrhea-predominant (IBS-D)
  • constipation-predominant (IBS-C), and
  • mixed, or alterating (IBA-M, or IBS-A).

Some studies suggest that there may be a hormonal component to irritable bowel syndrome, resulting in changes of IBS symptoms, for better or worse, during pregnancy or menstruation. It has been estimated that about 80% of all irritable bowel syndrome suffers have an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines, and treatment often involves the use of antibiotics to control bacterial growth.

Additionally, it appears that irritable bowel syndrome episodes may be triggered by stress, depression, anger, tenseness, or feeling overwhelmed. Therefore, counseling and medication therapy may reduce the number of irritable bowel syndrome attacks. Fortunately, most irritable bowel syndrome sufferers are able to receive effective treatment, even though it may take many months or types of treatment to find relief.

Does IBS Cause Disability?

Individual's who are not able to control the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome usually have significant restrictions in their daily activities. Although irritable bowel syndrome is a commonly diagnosed condition, it can nonetheless be a severe impairment.

IBS is not currently included in the SSA's Listing of Impairments (medical conditions that listed are eligible for benefits if the applicant meets the criteria in the listings). However, if you can prove that your symptoms are painful, disruptive, and distracting enough to keep you from working a full-time job, you may be able to get benefits.

That said, you must first be able to show Social Security that your IBS is severe and has lasted 12 months. This durational requirement can be difficult to fulfill as IBS is often intermittent in nature.

To prove to Social Security that your IBS is so severe you can't work, your medical records need to show how your IBS symptoms interfere with your ability to work. For example, if abdominal pain and cramps interferes with your ability to focus and work at an acceptable pace, Social Security should take this into account. If you need to take frequent and unscheduled bathroom breaks, Social Security would need to take this into account, as it would limit the type of work you could do. And if a condition reduces your productivity by over 20%, Social Security is supposed to consider you disabled. (For more information, see our article on qualifying for disability due to reduced productivity.)

Social Security looks at your medical record for clues on how your condition affects or restricts your work. If your doctor has included an opinion of how IBS limits you, it will be helpful for your claim. Social Security takes this information and creates a "residual functional capacity" (RFC) assessment for you, that shows what you can and cannot be expected to do. Depending on what restrictions your RFC includes, Social Security may decide that you can't do your prior job, and may even decide that, given your age, job skills, and education level, there are no jobs you can do. For more information, see our section on how RFCs are used to decide disability claims.

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