Can You Get Disability Benefits for Pancreatitis?

The pain and weight loss associated with chronic pancreatitis can make it difficult to work full-time.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

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.

If you have a disease called pancreatitis that keeps you from working for twelve months, you might qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

What Is Pancreatitis?

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.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

Abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting are characteristic symptoms of pancreatitis. Other signs of pancreatitis can include:

  • a tender abdomen
  • fever or rapid pulse
  • oily bowel movements, and
  • unwanted weight loss.

Types of Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis can be acute, meaning a one-time episode, or chronic, meaning it lasts over time.

  • Acute pancreatitis can develop suddenly and last for days before it goes away. This type of pancreatitis is most frequently caused by gallstones.
  • Chronic pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas is permanently inflamed. This type of pancreatitis can be hereditary (inherited) or "idiopathic" (cause unknown), but it's most commonly caused by heavy alcohol use.

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

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.

Is Pancreatitis a Disability?

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.

Can You Get Disability Benefits for Pancreatitis?

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:

  • how much weight you can lift and carry
  • how long you can be on your feet for
  • whether you need extra bathroom breaks, and
  • whether your pain or medication interferes with your ability to concentrate.

The SSA will then look at the jobs you've done in the past five 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.

How to Qualify for Disability Benefits Because of Pancreatitis

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.

What Is the Process of Applying for Disability for Pancreatitis?

You can begin your claim for Social Security disability benefits in one of the following ways:

  • Apply online at Social Security's website. Filing online has many benefits, such as giving you a dated receipt of your application and allowing you to fill out the application at your own pace.
  • Apply over the phone at 800-722-1213 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you're deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number at 800-325-0778.
  • Apply in person at your local Social Security field office. Please note that this option can involve lengthy waiting.

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

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