Neck pain and problems can be caused by many different issues: muscle strain, joints that become worn, nerve compression, injury, and disease. Many of the neck problems seen on disability applications are due to degenerative disk disease, whiplash, herniated discs, inflammatory disorders such as arthritis, slippage of a vertebra (retrolisthesis or spondylolisthesis), pinched nerves, infections such as meningitis, and certain types of cancer.
Symptoms of neck pain and problems can include sharp, shooting pain, numbness, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, headache, pains in the face and/or shoulders, and arm tingling and numbness.
In order to qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or SSI benefits for neck pain or problems, claimants must meet the requirements of one of Social Security's official disability listings or prove that they don't have the capacity to return to work because of neck pain or doctors' restrictions.
The Social Security disability listings for musculoskeletal disorders address one of the causes of neck pain and problems, though there are other ways to qualify for disability benefits for other causes. But if you meet the requirements of the medical listings because of severe problems in your cervical spine, Social Security won't even have to consider how your neck problems limit your activities; you would be approved for benefits right away.
Social Security updated its spinal disorder listings in April 2021, and now there is really one spinal listing that can be used to get disability for neck problems. This is the new Listing 1.15, for disorders of the spine resulting in "compromise of a nerve root."
Compromised nerve roots. Individuals who have a compromised nerve root of the cervical spine often suffer from arthritis of the facet joint, a cervical bone spur, or a herniated disc in the upper spine. They may have numbness, tingling, or pain in the neck, shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers, called "cervical radiculopathy." If the inflammation or impingement of the nerve root becomes severe, they may have difficulty using their hands and fingers for fine motor movements such as typing, writing, or gripping and lifting objects.
Criteria for the listing. In order to meet the requirements of this disability listing for your neck problems, you must show that the nerve root of the spinal cord is compressed. Generally, this means you must have radiating pain, tingling, or muscle fatigue; a lack of sensation or reflexes; and you must not be able to use either hand for fine and gross motor movements. For the details, read our article on Social Security's disability listing for nerve root compression.
Medical evidence required. The medical evidence required to meet this listing includes an examination of your spine to document your range of motion, sensory tests, strength tests, and tests specific to the specific cervical nerve root affected, such as a Spurling test. You'll also need to have medical imaging such as an MRI, x-ray, or CT scan showing compromise of a cervical nerve root. A history of treatments received, how long that treatment lasted, and your body’s response to the treatments is also helpful.
Social Security has removed a related medical listing from the musculoskeletal listings: the listing for "spinal arachnoiditis." Arachnoiditis (ARC) is a painful disorder caused by inflammation in the spine. Someone with cervical arachnoiditis might feel severe stinging and burning pain (neuralgia). Arachnoiditis is often caused by complications from spinal procedures, but it can also be caused by cervical stenosis or disc disease. Social Security says that arachnoiditis should now be analyzed under the neurological listings, specifically listing 11.08 for spinal cord disorders. For more information, see our article on getting disability for spinal arachnoiditis.
Additionally, as the causes and symptoms of neck pain and problems can vary greatly, other disability listings may apply to some individuals who suffer from neck pain and problems, such as:
If you are not found to be disabled under one of the above listings, you might still be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits if you are found unable to return to work. Social Security will assess your limitations and how they limit your ability to do work activities using a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form.
Here are some limitations that neck problems can cause:
Social Security will review your medical records to find limitations like these to create your RFC. The agency will then look at your RFC, your job experience, your education, and your age to see if there are any jobs left that you can do. For information on how Social Security makes this determination, see our articles on reduced functional capacity due to musculoskeletal problems and how Social Security decides if you can work.
If you're applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you can file your entire claim online on Social Security's website. (For SSDI, you must have enough work credits to qualify.) If you're not comfortable online, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to start your claim.
If you don't have enough work credits, and you have low income, you can apply for SSI. Most individuals filing for SSI only cannot file the whole application online, but they can get started on Social Security's website. For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.
Updated April 13, 2021