Can You Get Disability Benefits for Shoulder Pain and Problems?

Shoulder pain and problems can cause functional limitations that might prevent you from working.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Your shoulders are some of the most important joints in your body, and injuries to them can cause significant pain and reduced range of motion. When you can't use your shoulders very often to reach, lift, or carry objects, you can struggle to perform everyday tasks. If your limitations are severe enough, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Types of Common Shoulder Problems

Shoulder problems can be the result of an injury, illness, or degeneration. While each condition has a different cause, they share common symptoms of pain that can make it difficult to use your shoulder, arms, and hands to their full extent.

  • Calcific tendonitis happens when calcium build-up on your tendons (the tissues that connect muscle to bone) causes inflammation of your shoulder.
  • Shoulder impingement occurs when the top outer edge of your shoulder blade rubs against fluid-filled sacs known as bursa that cushion the bone.
  • Frozen shoulder (also called dislocated capsulitis) is when the capsule of connective tissue that protects your shoulder thickens and tightens around the joint.
  • Rotator cuff tears are small rips in the group of muscles and tendons that stabilize your shoulder joint.
  • Dislocation happens when the ball-shaped part of your upper arm bone pops out of the cup-shaped socket that's part of your shoulder blade.
  • Osteoarthritis causes the bones involved in your shoulder joint to wear down and weaken.

Additional shoulder problems include biceps subluxation (tears in the muscle next to the shoulder joint) and shoulder injury related to vaccine administration (SIRVA). Unrelated cardiovascular and neurological disorders—such as stroke or diabetes—can cause complications like frozen shoulder.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Shoulder Pain and Problems

Shoulder problems are often diagnosed in three stages. Your doctor will:

  • ask you questions about your medical history to find out what might be the source of your shoulder problems
  • perform a physical examination to determine how far you can move your shoulder in different directions without pain, and
  • run tests such as an X-ray, MRI, ultrasound, electromyography (EMG), or CT scan to establish a specific diagnosis and begin treatment.

Treatments for shoulder problems and pain vary depending on how severe your condition is. Some people can recover from shoulder problems with conservative measures such as rest, ice, or immobilization with a sling or cast. Others need a more intensive regimen, such as physical therapy and pain medication. If none of these methods work, surgery can be an option.

Getting Disability for Shoulder Pain & Problems

In order to find you disabled, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will first need to see that your shoulder condition has prevented you from working full-time for at least one year. Social Security defines full-time work as earning over the substantial gainful activity (SGA) amount.

If you haven't been earning above the SGA amount ($1,550 per month in 2024), Social Security will then need to see that you have a medical condition that interferes significantly with your activities of daily living. For example, if you have a torn rotator cuff that makes it difficult to lift a gallon of milk or put your shirt on, the SSA can find that impairment potentially disabling.

Qualifying for Disability Using a Blue Book Listing

Social Security maintains a "Blue Book" of impairments that the agency considers to be especially severe. If your medical records contain specific information that the SSA has already determined is enough to show that you're disabled, the agency will find that you "meet or equal a listed impairment" and award you benefits.

Shoulder problems (such as calcific tendinosis) don't have their own specific listing in the Blue Book. Instead, Social Security can evaluate your shoulder condition under the broader category of "musculoskeletal disorders." Within this category are some listings that are particularly applicable to shoulder disorders, such as:

  • 1.18, Abnormality of a major joint. If you can't use one or both of your arms to move objects without an assistive device, you might satisfy this listing's requirements.
  • 1.19, Pathologic fractures. If you've had at least three shoulder fractures in the span of one year that prevent you from using your arms, you might meet or equal this listing.
  • 1.20, Amputation. Having both arms amputated, or having one arm amputated but needing to use an assistive device with the other, will likely qualify you under this listing.

Meeting or equaling the requirements of the Blue Book listings can be tricky. (Not many disability applicants have records containing the specific criteria needed for the SSA to award them benefits this way.) But even if you don't qualify according to the Blue Book, the agency can still find you disabled if you can show that your limitations prevent you from working.

Qualifying for Disability by Showing You Can't Do Any Job

Social Security doesn't expect you to do any job that's beyond your capabilities. The agency reviews your medical records and your function report in order to determine the most you can do in a work setting—a process called assessing your residual functional capacity (RFC).

A typical RFC for people with shoulder problems will almost certainly include restrictions on how much weight you can lift and carry (without pain). Additional limitations can include:

  • how much weight you can push and pull
  • restrictions on the kinds of machinery you can operate
  • how long you can use your arms to reach overhead, to the front, and to the side, and
  • how long you can use your hands and fingers to hold small objects or press buttons.

The SSA classifies all jobs according to how physically demanding the work is, including how much weight you need to be able to lift to perform the job duties.

The SSA will look at your past work to determine whether you could do it now, despite the limitations in your RFC. If you can perform your past work, the agency can't find you disabled.

If Social Security thinks that you can't return to your past work, the agency will then need to decide if you can do other jobs, based on your age, education, and experience. People over the age of 50 might be found disabled under the medical-vocational grid rules, while people under the age of 50 will generally need to show that they can't perform even the easiest, sit-down jobs.

For more information on how the agency determines whether your RFC prevents you from doing certain types of jobs, see our section on how Social Security decides if you're disabled.

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