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Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Social Security Disability

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) - Condition and Symptoms

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, is a non-contagious, chronic, and progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is also known as Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, Chronic Obstructive Airway Disease, Chronic Airflow Limitation, and Chronic Obstructive Respiratory Disease. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of COPD, but long term exposure to other lung irritants (air pollutants, chemicals, etc.) may also aggravate the condition. In persons with COPD, the airways to the lungs (bronchial tubes) lose their elasticity, the walls between the alveoli (the air sacs in the lungs through which oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged when you breathe) are destroyed, the walls of the airways become inflamed, and mucous is formed in and clogs the airways. COPD also burdens the heart, since the amount of oxygen available in the blood is greatly reduced by the condition.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease includes two main conditions, Emphysema and Chronic Bronchitis, and most people with COPD suffer from both. Emphysema affects mostly the alveoli, causing damage to their walls, which leads to fewer and larger alveoli that are floppy instead of firm. The result is a less effective exchange of oxygen and carbon monoxide. Chronic Bronchitis is a condition of the airways to the lungs, causing them to be inflamed and irritated, which causes them to thicken and to produce excess mucous. The thickened walls and clogging mucous reduce the size of the airways.

In order to diagnose Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, your doctor will not only record your symptoms and take a medical history, but will also order lung function tests to see if there is airflow limitation. Your doctor will be looking for a history of smoking, labored breathing, and a chronic wet cough. He or she will listen with a stethoscope to detect a decreased intensity of breath sounds and prolonged expiration when you exhale. Other diagnostic clues include a rapid breathing rate, wheezing or crackling sounds in the lungs, an enlargement of the chest, breathing through pursed lips, and using the muscles in the neck to aid breathing.

The most common symptom of COPD is shortness of breath. First noticed during vigorous exercise, this symptom gradually worsens until all activity causes the person with COPD to have difficulty breathing. In the advanced stages of COPD, labored breathing can become so bad it constantly present, even when the person is resting. Other symptoms are wheezing, coughing that produces large amounts of mucus, chest tightness, fatigue, bluish lips, headaches, twitching, and swollen ankles. COPD develops slowly, but as symptoms worsen they will increasingly limit a person’s ability to perform daily activities to the point that walking, cooking, and dressing are exhausting.

There is no cure for COPD and resulting lung damage is irreversible. Treatment focuses on slowing the progression of the disease. Treatment options include smoking cessation, vaccinations against other conditions (such as pneumonia) that put stress the lungs, rehabilitation, and medications including anti-inflammatory drugs, long-term oxygen therapy, inhalers to relax the bronchial tubes, and even lung transplantation.

Filing for Social Security Disability with a Diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Unfortunately, there is no specific listing for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in the Social Security Administration’s “Blue Book,” or Impairment Listing Manual. Respiratory illnesses of this type are grouped under Section 3.00: Respiratory System.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is categorized by the Social Security Administration (SSA) as an “obstructive airway disease,” along with Emphysema and Bronchitis specifically. When considering whether or not your condition is severe enough to warrant disability benefits, the SSA will ask for medical records that establish a firm diagnosis of COPD, document all apparent symptoms and the severity of those symptoms, and detail the treatment you are receiving and your response to that treatment. The SSA then bases its decision on your ability to perform daily tasks, walk, and move about. The SSA also takes into consideration how your symptoms limit you, the extent of your treatment, and how you respond to treatment.

If your medical records meet the criteria listed in this section of the Blue Book, you may qualify for disability benefits. The listing for respiratory illnesses is extensive and complicated. Because there are no specific criteria specifically for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, proving total disability and achieving disability benefits can be difficult. In general, you must show that you have been clinically diagnosed with chronic pulmonary disease and that your Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is severe enough to prevent you from engaging in gainful activity.

You must provide your treatment history, including ongoing medical and clinical records that document treatment, the length of time the treatment was administered, and how you responded to the treatment over time. Your records should be detailed enough to indicate both the severity of your condition and how you function with treatment.

In addition to your treatment history, the SSA will ask for a thorough medical history, physical examination, and MRI, CT scan, or chest x-ray to establish Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Finally, Pulmonary Function Testing will be required to assess the severity of the respiratory impairment.

Your Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Disability Case

If you are disabled because of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease that is so severe it prevents you from working, you may be entitled to Social Security Disability benefits. Because COPD is covered by the “Respiratory System” section of the Blue Book, there are very specific criteria for proving total disability on the basis of this condition. In most cases, working closely with a qualified Social Security Disability attorney or advocate in addition to your medical professionals can help to ensure that you collect and present the appropriate documentation to support your disability claim with the highest possible chances of success.