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Degenerative Disc Disease and Social Security Disability

Degenerative Disc Disease - Condition and Symptoms

Degenerative Disc Disease is a condition that refers to the natural deterioration over time of a person’s spinal discs. Contrary to its name, Degenerative Disc Disease is not actually a disease, but rather a condition that develops to varying degrees in all individuals. Symptoms of Degenerative Disc can range from severe pain to a complete lack of complications.

If you are considering applying for Social Security disability benefits with Degenerative Disc Disease, be sure to read our article on tips on applying for the condition.

Spinal discs are soft, compressible discs that separate the individual vertebrae of the spine. Your spinal discs allow you to bend, twist, and otherwise flex your back by acting as separators and shock absorbers between the vertebrae. Changes in your discs can result in conditions such as a herniated disc (fluid leaking from a spinal disc), spinal stenosis (narrowing of the canal that holds the spinal chord), bone spurs, and osteoarthritis. Such conditions can put pressure on the spinal chord and nerves, making everyday activities such as bending your back, raising your arms, or other normal movements difficult and painful. Degenerative Disc Disease can affect any of your discs, but most often occurs in the neck and lower back.

For most people Degenerative Disc Disease causes no painful symptoms, but for some a degenerated disc can cause constant, severe chronic pain. With symptomatic Degenerative Disc Disease, chronic lower back pain sometimes radiates to the hips or causes pain in the buttocks or thighs while walking. You may feel sporadic tingling or weakness through the knees. Simple daily activities such as sitting, bending, lifting, and twisting can be quite painful and you may also have chronic neck pain radiating to the shoulders, arms and hands.

Degenerative Disc Disease can often be successfully treated non-surgical treatments including physical therapy, chiropractic care, osteopathic manipulation, ultra sound, massage therapy, braced support, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Traction and spinal injections are two additional options. If no improvement is achieved with these treatments, surgery may be necessary, especially if pain is accompanied with weakness or numbness in the legs. The surgical technique most commonly employed is spinal fusion. The goals of treatment are to relieve pain, prevent or reduce stress on the discs, and maintain normal function.

Filing for Social Security Disability with a Degenerative Disc Disease Diagnosis

The Social Security Administration (SSA) classifies Degenerative Disc Disease as a disorder of the spine, under Section 1.04 of its Impairment Listing Manual, or “Blue Book.” The SSA bases its assessment of the severity of your condition on your ability to walk and move about, how your symptoms (including pain) limit you, the extent of your treatment, and how your treatment has historically affected.

To qualify for disability benefits, you must demonstrate that your ability to walk has been seriously impaired to the extent that you have trouble initiating, sustaining, or completing activities without help. This generally means that your legs don’t function well enough for you to walk without an assistive device, the use of which also limits the use of your arms. You must also be unable to sustain a reasonable walking pace and to carry out your daily activities without assistance. You may also have severe limitations in your hands and arms, such that you are incapable of reaching, pushing, pulling, grasping, and fingering to be able to carry out activities of daily living.

Pain or other symptoms may be an important factor contributing to functional loss, but in order for pain and other symptoms to be found to contribute to your disability, medical signs or laboratory findings must show the existence of a medically determinable impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms. Intensity and persistence of pain or other symptoms will be evaluated as well.

In order to qualify an individual for Social Security Disability benefits, these impairments must have lasted, or be expected to last, for at least 12 months.

In filing for a disability claim, it is important that you obtain medical records which include an exact diagnosis of your condition and evidence in support of the criteria discussed above, including:

  1. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine); OR
  2. Spinal arachnoiditis, confirmed by an operative note or pathology report of tissue biopsy or by appropriate medically acceptable imaging, manifested by severe burning or painful dysesthesia, resulting in the need for changes in position or posture more than once every 2 hours; OR
  3. Lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication, established by findings on appropriate medically acceptable imaging, manifested by chronic nonradicular pain and weakness, and resulting in inability to ambulate effectively.
  4. Your Degenerative Disc Disease Disability Case

    If Degenerative Disc Disease prevents you from working, you may well be entitled to Social Security Disability benefits. In many cases, working closely with a qualified Social Security disability attorney or advocate (in addition to the appropriate medical professionals) to collect and present the appropriate documentation to support your disability claim in front of the Social Security Administration can help to ensure that your Degenerative Disc Disease disability case will have the strongest possible chance of success.