Social Security Disability (SSI & SSDI) for Neck Pain, or Cervicalgia

How you can get Social Security Disability benefits for cervicalgia or neck problems caused by arthritis, disc issues, or pinched nerves.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School

Cervicalgia means pain in the neck; specifically, in one of the first seven vertebrae of the spine (C1 through C7). Neck pain and neck problems can be caused by many different issues: muscle strain, joints that become worn out ("cervical spondylosis"), nerve compression, neck injury, and disease.

What Neck Problems Can Cause Disability?

Most of the neck problems seen on disability applications are due to:

Symptoms of neck pain and problems can include sharp, shooting pain brought on by turning the head, chronic stiffness, numbness in the arms or fingers, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, headache, and pains in the face and/or shoulders. These symptoms can make it difficult to work at a computer, drive a car, lift heavy items, reach overhead, or do construction work.

Getting Disability Benefits for Neck Pain or Cervicalgia

To qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or SSI benefits for neck pain or neck problems, applicants must either:

  • 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 their neck pain or doctors' restrictions.

Meeting a Musculoskeletal Disability Listing for Neck Problems

Social Security's disability listings for musculoskeletal disorders address one of the causes of cervicalgia and neck problems: compression of a nerve root.

There are other ways to qualify for disability benefits for other causes, but, if you meet the requirements of a disability listing because of severe problems in your cervical spine, the Social Security Administration (SSA) won't even have to consider how your neck problems limit your activities; you would be approved for benefits right away.

Listing 1.15 is for disorders of the spine resulting in "compromise of a nerve root." A nerve root is the part of a nerve that exits from the spinal cord through the vertebrae.

Cause of compromised nerve roots. Individuals who have a compromised nerve root of the cervical spine often suffer from one of the following:

  • arthritis of facet joints (between the vertebrae)
  • a cervical bone spur (bony growths on the vertebrae), or
  • a herniated disc in the upper spine.

These issues may cause numbness, tingling, or pain in the neck, shoulder, arm, hand, or fingers, called "cervical radiculopathy." When the inflammation or impingement of the nerve root becomes severe, people often have difficulty using their hands and fingers for fine motor movements such as typing, writing, or gripping and lifting objects.

Criteria for the listing. To meet the requirements of this disability listing for your neck problems, you must have evidence that:

  • a nerve root is compressed or otherwise compromised (generally, this means you have radiating pain, tingling, or muscle fatigue)
  • you have muscle weakness and 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:

  • range of motion tests
  • sensory tests
  • strength tests, and
  • tests specific to the specific cervical nerve root affected, such as a Spurling test.

Your doctor or a specialist can perform these tests during a physical examination. You'll also need to have medical imaging such as an MRI, X-ray, or CT scan showing that a cervical nerve root has been compromised. It's also helpful to have a history of any treatments you received, such as physical therapy, medication, or injections, how long the treatment lasted, and your body's response to the treatments.

Meeting Other Disability Listings for Neck Problems

Social Security used to have another medical listing in 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. According to Social Security, 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:

Not Being Able to Return to Work

If Social Security doesn't find you disabled under one of the above listings (which is very difficult), you might still be eligible for Social Security disability benefits if the SSA finds that your pain and limitations are too great for you to return to work. Social Security assesses your limitations and how they limit your ability to do work activities by using a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form.

Here are some limitations that neck problems can cause:

  • Your ability to use your arms or hands may be affected, especially if you have decreased feeling in your arms.
  • Your ability to turn your head may be limited, preventing you from driving or looking around.
  • Your doctor may restrict you from lifting items over 20 pounds or reaching overhead.
  • Your doctor may restrict you from bending the neck forward to look at computer screens or phones because that increases the level of pain and tension.
  • You may lose coordination in your fingers due to cervical radiculopathy, causing you to frequently drop items or be unable to sustain fine motor movements like typing.
  • Neck problems that cause severe pain in your neck or face can prevent you from being able to concentrate on tasks.

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 capacity due to musculoskeletal problems and how Social Security decides if you can work.

How to Apply for Disability for Neck Problems

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.

If you'd like help with your application, think about working with a disability advocate or lawyer. According to a survey of our readers, applicants who filed an initial application without expert help were denied 80% of the time. Try finding a disability lawyer or advocate who will give you a free case evaluation to help determine whether your neck pain is severe enough to qualify for benefits.

Updated May 30, 2023

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