Spines do more work in the body than most other bones. They keep us upright, let us bend, house our nerves, and connect almost all of the important working pieces in our body to one another. When a herniated disc occurs, the nerves in the spine become crushed or pushed out from between the vertebrae.
Herniated discs are actually quite common. With the help of pain medication and limited movement, most people heal fully within 6 weeks. However, some herniated discs are stubborn, and they could worsen over time. Eventually, they can become too painful for people to even take care of themselves independently.
If your herniated disc causes you continuous, long-lasting pain, then you may be eligible for monthly financial assistance through the Social Security disability benefits program. Herniated discs in the neck and back can qualify for benefits if your symptoms are severe enough.
Social Security Disability Benefits
Disability benefits are provided to U.S. residents whose disorder is severe enough to:
a) prevent them from working or completing necessary daily tasks, such as cooking, getting around, bathing, or dressing without assistance, and
b) last for at least 12 months or expect to result in death.
Those who qualify under these conditions are considered “totally and permanently disabled,” making them eligible to receive monthly financial payments. Depending on your disorder, different symptoms are required to classify you under these terms.
The requirements for each disorder are listed in the Social Security’s “Blue Book”, which you can consult on the SSA’s website at any time.
Blue Book Listing for Herniated Discs
Herniated discs are listed under Section 1.04 of the Blue Book: “Disorders of the Spine”, which refers to it as "herniated nucleus pulposus."
Common disorders from a herniated disc include nerve root compression ( pressure on the nerves of the spine), spinal stenosis ( a narrowing of the spine), and arachnoiditis, which is an inflammation of a membrane around the spine.
Here, the Blue Book states that applicants with a herniated disc can qualify if their disorder:
- results in the compromise of a nerve root (the initial segment of a nerve leaving the central nervous system) or the spinal cord, such as
- causes distributed pain, limits spinal motion, and/or causes motor loss due to the atrophying of unused muscles,
- causes sensory or reflex loss, and
- if involvement is in the lower back, limits motion in the legs measured with a positive straight-leg raising test (SLR test)
When you're just looking at the listing, it can be difficult to determine whether or not you will qualify. For example, understand the Social Security Administration’s definition of a “compromised nerve root” or “limited spinal motion” can be difficult when seen out of context.
However, if you suffer from a limited range of movement, muscle weakness or decreased reflexes or sensory response due to a bulging disc, you may be able to use documentation of those conditions to support your disability claim.
Since the Blue Book refers to specific medical terms like these, it is best to consult with your physician to see if you qualify. They can also provide you with new or updated tests to compare your results to those listed above.
Qualifying Without Meeting a Blue Book Listing
In some cases, applicants who do not meet their Blue Book listing may still qualify for benefits. If you can demonstrate that your severe herniated disc prevents you from returning to any work you have been trained to do, then you may qualify for a Medical Vocational Allowance (MVA).
Generally, If you are over 50 and cannot do many of the activities that you did in your previous jobs, you may be more likely to be approved for benefits.
For example, say you are a woman in your mid-50’s who has spent her whole life working as a waitress. After your herniated disc, you are unable to bend or lift things over 15 pounds without pain, let alone remain on your feet long enough to work a standard shift.
Even if your herniated disc doesn’t qualify under the Blue Book, the SSA may help you qualify for an MVA because you have no other possibilities for income.
Preparing for the Application
When it comes to applying for disability benefits, you can never be too thorough. Before you start your application, be sure to have the following materials from acceptable medical sources on hand:
- MRI/CT scans, preferably multiple ones over time.
- Previous and current treatment lists, including medication, braces, physical therapy, or surgery (microscopic diskectomy, laminectomy, etc.)
- Hospitalization history, especially if your herniated disc has required multiple ER visits within the last year.
- General medical history, which can show the worsening of your condition over time.
Similarly, if you believe an MVA may be for you, be sure to get a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) test as well. These tests measure your ability to complete physical tasks such as walking, sitting, standing from a seated position, lifting, pulling, or bending.
Your doctor can help by establishing in what ways you are disabled, what the extent of your disability is, and how it limits your function by filling out the RFC.
The less you are able to do, the greater your chance of being accepted for disability benefits. RFC forms can be printed out online and given to your physician to fill out.
The Importance of Disability Attorneys
Disability attorneys can greatly increase your chances of getting benefits. They can take difficult cases and help you organize paperwork, update the SSA on your condition, and potentially represent you in court should you need to appeal. Better yet, their services come at no cost to you unless they help you win your case.
Consider a free consultation with a disability attorney near you to give yourself the best chance at receiving the benefits you need.