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.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects millions of individuals. Between 20% and 50% of all visits to the gastroenterologist involve IBS, and in Western countries, most of the patients are female.

IBS is often characterized by alternating periods of diarrhea and constipation with other debilitating symptoms like:

Note that IBS isn't considered a form of the much more serious "inflammatory bowel disease," which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, because IBS doesn't cause inflammation. But IBS can be severe enough to make it difficult to work.

If you can't work because of your IBS symptoms, it's possible to qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits—but it's not easy. Read on to learn more about getting Social Security disability for your IBS.

What Causes IBS?

There are three common types of IBS:

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

It's estimated that about 80% of all irritable bowel syndrome sufferers have an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines. Treatment often involves the use of antibiotics to control bacterial growth.

Some studies suggest that there may be a hormonal component to irritable bowel syndrome. Hormonal changes during pregnancy or menstruation sometimes result in changes in IBS symptoms, for better or worse.

Additionally, it appears that irritable bowel syndrome episodes might be triggered by emotional factors like:

  • stress
  • depression
  • anger
  • tenseness, or
  • feeling overwhelmed.

A combination of counseling and medication therapy can sometimes reduce the number of IBS attacks. Fortunately, most IBS sufferers are able to receive effective treatment, even though it can take many months or types of treatment to find relief.

When Can I Get Social Security Disability for IBS?

Individuals who aren't able to control the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome often have significant restrictions in their daily activities. Although IBS is a commonly diagnosed condition, it can be a severe impairment.

Is IBS a Disability?

IBS isn't currently included in the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) Listing of Impairments—a list of medical conditions that are automatically eligible for benefits if you meet the criteria in the listings. But if you can prove that your symptoms are painful, disruptive, and distracting enough to keep you from working a full-time job, you might be able to get disability benefits.

That said, you'll first need to show Social Security that your IBS is severe and has lasted at least 12 months. This durational requirement can be difficult to fulfill as irritable bowel syndrome is often intermittent in nature.

Proving Your IBS Is Disabling

To prove to Social Security that your IBS is severe enough to be disabling, your medical records need to show how your IBS symptoms interfere with your ability to work.

For example, 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 could affect your ability to keep any type of job. It will help your claim if your doctor has recorded your need for frequent bathroom breaks in your treatment notes.

If abdominal pain and cramps interfere with your ability to focus and work at an acceptable pace, Social Security should take this into account too because it affects your productivity. And if your condition reduces your productivity by more than 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 about how your condition affects or restricts your work. If your doctor has included an opinion on how IBS limits you, it will be helpful for your claim.

Explaining How IBS Affects Your Ability to Function

During the application process, Social Security will likely ask you to complete a questionnaire called the "function report." You'll use this form to explain in detail how your IBS limits your ability to work and what a typical day is like for you. For example, if abdominal pain sometimes makes it difficult for you to walk or have a conversation, Social Security needs to know that.

When you fill out the form, include all of the medical conditions that affect your ability to work. For instance, if you have IBS and depression, include the effects of the depression too. If stress aggravates your condition, talk about that too. Be sure to include details about:

  • how often you have symptoms
  • how long your symptoms last, and
  • all of the activities you can't do because of your symptoms.

How Social Security Decides If You're Disabled

Social Security will use your function report and your medical records to create a "residual functional capacity" (RFC) assessment for you. Your RFC shows what you can and can't be expected to do.

Your RFC will include restrictions based on your physical symptoms of IBS and any other conditions you have, including depression or anxiety. An RFC for someone with severe IBS might include the following restrictions:

  • requires access to frequent bathroom breaks
  • requires a flexible start time to accommodate sudden symptoms
  • can stand/walk for only two hours per day
  • reduced productivity or extra breaks due to pain
  • requires a low-stress environment, and
  • ability to work with the public is limited.

Social Security will compare the restrictions in your RFC with the duties required of your past jobs, to see if you could return to that type of work. If you can't, the agency will then determine if any other jobs exist that you can do with your current RFC.

Based on your RFC, Social Security will decide whether or not you can do your current or most recent job or any other type of work.

How Age Affects Your Chances of Getting Disability for IBS

Older disability applicants (over 50) with less education and fewer job skills might have an easier time proving there's no work they can do, by showing they can't perform their past work (and can't learn a new job) under rules called the medical-vocational grid. But applicants under the age of 50 need to show that they can't do even the easiest sit-down jobs before Social Security will find them disabled. For more information, see our section on how RFCs are used to decide disability claims.

How to Apply for Social Security Disability for IBS

The fastest way to get your application for Social Security disability benefits started is to apply online. You can complete the online application from wherever you are and at a time that's convenient for you. If you can't complete the application in one sitting, you can save your progress and finish it later.

You can also apply for SSDI or SSI by phone. Call Social Security's national toll-free number, 800-722-1213, weekdays between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. TTY is available for the hearing impaired at 800-325-0778.

Or you can apply in person at your local Social Security office. This can be a good option if you need help filling out the application. But call to make an appointment first.

You could also get help from a disability lawyer or advocate. These professionals know Social Security's rules and procedures and how to fill out the disability application. Attorneys and non-attorney representatives also understand what kind of medical evidence you'll need to be able to prove your IBS keeps you from working, and they can help you gather it.

Learn how to decide if you need to hire a disability attorney or a non-attorney advocate.

Updated October 5, 2023

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