Your pancreas (PAN-kree-us) is a gland, located behind your stomach, that plays an important role in the digestive system. Enzymes produced by your pancreas help break down nutrients in your food and regulate your blood sugar. When your pancreas isn't functioning properly, you can experience painful symptoms that make it difficult to work full-time.
Pancreatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the pancreas, usually caused by digestive enzymes attacking the organ itself. Mild cases of pancreatitis might resolve by changing your diet, but more severe cases can require surgery.
Abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting are characteristic symptoms of pancreatitis. Other signs of pancreatitis can include:
Pancreatitis can be acute, meaning a one-time episode, or chronic, meaning it lasts over time.
Your doctor will diagnose your pancreatitis by running tests in order to see if you have elevated levels of digestive enzymes in your blood, signaling that your pancreas is inflamed. Or, your doctor might use medical imaging (such as an X-ray, ultrasound, MRI, or CT scan) to look for abnormalities or blockages in your pancreas.
Treatment for pancreatitis depends on whether the condition is acute or chronic. People with acute pancreatitis who are admitted to the hospital usually receive pain medication and intravenous (IV) fluids to help reduce inflammation, and (if necessary) surgery to remove gallstones.
Chronic pancreatitis may require that you take enzymes to replace the ones that aren't working properly in your pancreas. Because pancreatitis often causes abdominal pain, your doctor may refer you to a pain specialist for ongoing medication management. If your pancreatitis symptoms worsen, your doctor might suggest a nerve block to control your pain, or surgery such as a pancreas resection.
Pancreatitis can be a very painful condition that can cause significant restrictions in your activities of daily living. Often, people with chronic pancreatitis will suffer from abdominal pain and need unrestricted access to the restroom due to digestive problems, which affects their ability to hold down a full-time job.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) can award you disability benefits if symptoms from your pancreatitis are severe enough to keep you from working. The agency will look at your medical records and your function report to make a determination about your residual functional capacity (RFC).
Your RFC is a set of restrictions describing the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work environment. For somebody with pancreatitis, a typical RFC might include restrictions on the following:
The SSA will then look at the jobs you've done in the past 15 years and see if you could do any of them with your current RFC. For example, if your past work was as a lumber logger where you had to lift and carry over 75 pounds, and the agency thinks you can only lift 20 pounds due to symptoms of nausea and pain, you'll be unable to return to your "past relevant work."
Depending on non-medical factors—such as your age, education, and whether you have any transferable skills—being unable to perform your past work might be enough for the SSA to find you disabled. Most disability applicants under the age of 50, however, will need to show that, not only can't they meet the demands of their past work, but they can't perform even the easiest, sit-down job.
Your medical records are the foundation of your Social Security disability claim. When you apply, make sure that you provide the date of treatment and location of any medical providers that you've seen for your pancreatitis. Social Security will reach out to these providers to request your medical records.
Be ready to explain to the SSA why your symptoms prevent you from performing any kind of work. Your functional limitations need to rule out not only your past job, but any other job as well. For example, if you can't work because side effects from your pancreatitis medication make it too difficult for you to concentrate on finishing the simplest tasks, it's unlikely that any employer would hire you for even a basic assembly line or data entry job.
The SSA is required to take all of your medical conditions into consideration when determining whether you're disabled, so if you suffer from a related digestive or gastrointestinal disorder, let the agency know.
You can begin your claim for Social Security disability benefits in one of the following ways:
Consider getting help with your application from an experienced disability attorney or advocate. Your attorney can gather your medical records, submit a brief on your behalf to the SSA, and represent you at a disability hearing.
Updated October 10, 2023