Scoliosis is an abnormal curve in the spine that can cause your spine to have a "C" or "S" shape. The severity of scoliosis can vary greatly by person. Some individuals may suffer little effects from their scoliosis, while others may suffer persistent back pain, breathing problems, or spine or nerve damage from spinal surgery or uncorrected scoliosis. Depending on the severity of the scoliosis, treatment can range from regular doctor's appointments (to follow minor progression) to spinal fusion surgery.
Only the more severe cases of scoliosis (or kyphosis and kyphoscoliosis) will qualify for Social Security disability benefits. There are two ways you can qualify for disability benefits. First, you can meet the requirements of a disability listing that is set out in Social Security's listing of impairments (called the blue book). Second, you can show that you are unable to return to work because of your limitations.
While scoliosis is not a disease that has its own listing in the Social Security blue book, if your scoliosis causes severe enough problems that it affects your ability to walk, or your ability to use both of your hands, it's possible that you could qualify by "equaling" listing 1.18, for "abnormality of a major joint in any extremity," or listing 14.09C, for "Ankylosing spondylitis or other spondyloarthropathies." Alternately, if your scoliosis is so severe that it affects your breathing or your heart, you could qualify for disability under the listings for respiratory disorders or cardiovascular disorders.
To qualify as disabled under this listing, you must have all of the following:
While the listing applies to extremities (legs, feet, arms, or hands), you (or a disability lawyer) can argue that your limitations are equal in severity to those in the listing. (Read our article on equaling a listing, for more information.)
This listing is only for those with a severe degree of spinal flexion (different than the degree of a Cobb angle for scoliosis) due to ankylosis (new bone formation). Under this listing, the agency grants benefits only to those whose spinal flexion means that their ability to see in front of them limits their ability to walk. Specifically, Social Security requires fixation of the dorsolumbar or cervical spine at 45° or more of flexion from the vertical position or fixation of the dorsolumbar or cervical spine at 30° or more of flexion from the vertical position, plus involvement of two or more organs/body systems. For more information, see our article on the listing for ankylosing spondylitis.
Most people with scoliosis won't qualify under these listings, but there are other listings that those with severe scoliosis might qualify under, or they could qualify by having an "RFC" that shows they can't work (more on this below).
Several other body systems can be affected by scoliosis. Severe scoliosis can affect your ability to breathe, your heart function, and your mental health (due to having visible deformities or chronic pain). Listings that may apply to scoliosis include:
For information on qualifying for disability for problems affecting these areas, visit our articles at the above links.
Social Security won't find most people with scoliosis disabled under one of Social Security's disability listings; in fact, only 10% of claimants approved for any type of musculoskeletal complaint are approved under the listings. If you don't meet a listing, Social Security is required to look at your limitations and the type of work you've done or could do.
You might be eligible for disability benefits if you are found to not be able to do a substantial amount of work because of your scoliosis. Social Security will assess your physical and mental limitations using a "residual functional capacity" (RFC) form to determine if there is any type of work you can do. Then, using a formula, Social Security will evaluate your ability to work any job based on your age, education, and work experience.
For those with severe scoliosis, tasks like lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling items may be impossible due to back pain and muscle weakness. Mental impairments, such as anxiety or depression, may also make a return to work difficult. For more information on how you can qualify for disability benefits with your limited RFC, see our article on getting disability for back problems because of a reduced capacity to work.
Updated April 16, 2021