How Disabling is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc is a common condition that affects over 3 million people a year in the United States. The severity of a herniated disc varies widely depending on the location of the disc.

While the majority of people with a herniated disc experience only minor discomforts, others may require surgery.

If you have a herniated disc that has impacted you for at least a year, and if you are unable to work as a result, there could be financial help available to you.

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program was created to assist those who have become disabled due to a condition such as a herniated disc.

how disabling is a herniated disc

What Exactly Is a Herniated Disc?

Your back is made up of a column of bones called vertebrae. In between each of these bones are soft, spongy spinal discs. If enough pressure is placed on the discs, they crack and the material in the disc can seep out, which is creates a herniated disc.

Herniated discs are sometimes called slipped discs, bulging disks, or more formally, herniated nucleus pulposus.

A herniated disc can occur anywhere in the spine, but most often occurs in the lumbar region of the lower back.The most common symptoms experienced with a herniated disc is pain and numbness in the lower back and legs, which often worsens when walking.

Some people also experience weakness in the legs as well. In rare cases, a serious complication called Cauda Equina Syndrome can develop.

A herniated disc is usually a self-limiting condition which resolves on its own within the first three months. Treatment for a herniated disc depends on the severity and location of the injury. Physical therapy, ice and heat therapy, chiropractic adjustments, anti-inflammatory medications, narcotics, and steroids are some of the nonsurgical options.

For those with a poor quality of life due to the condition, a lumbar decompression surgery sometimes is recommended.


What Can I Expect?

There is a range of symptoms that you might experience when you have a herniated disc, and they all might affect your ability to work differently.

A herniated disc is listed in the Disorders of the Spine Musculoskeletal system section (1.04) of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) “Blue Book.” This manual contains a variety of medical conditions, as well as the requirements needed to qualify for benefits under these circumstances.

According to the “Blue Book,” here are some signs that your herniated disc might qualify you for disability benefits:

  • Pain or numbness that travels to other parts of the body indicates that there may be nerve involvement, also called radiculopathy. Nerves run along your spine and can sometimes get compressed, or damaged, as a result of a herniated disc. If you experience severe pain or tingling when you turn your head, use your hands, or walk, it is possible that you may qualify for social security benefits.
  • Several membranes protect the nerves around the spinal cord. When you have a herniated disc, these layers may become inflamed, also called arachnoiditis. You may experience severe stinging or shooting pain, muscle spasms or twitching, or issues with your bladder or bowel. Additionally, you may need to change positions often to relieve the discomfort.
  • A herniated disc sometimes causes pseudo claudication, which is pain in your legs caused by compression of your nerve roots. This pain is made worse by standing or walking and is often relieved by sitting or lying down. If you experience pseudo claudication that causes you difficulty walking or moving around, you will be considered for benefits from the SSA.


  • Chronic pain, numbness, or weakness in your legs could affect your mobility, making tasks like walking or driving very difficult. You may need to use a cane, walker, or wheelchair to get around. Some people require assistance getting in or out of a car. If you have difficulty with mobility issues, you may be eligible for financial aid.
  • You may need surgery as a result of your herniated disc. If you have difficulty recovering from surgery or worsening symptoms after surgery, you may qualify for disability benefits.

If your doctor puts you on medications for a herniated disc, you may experience some side effects that may affect your quality of life.
While medication use alone will not qualify you for social security benefits, the medications and side effects may be taken into consideration when examining the full picture of your residual functioning capacity, or RFC.

  • NSAIDS used to reduce inflammation around the lumbar area may cause severe stomach problems such as heartburn, acid reflux, and nausea. In severe cases, you may develop kidney problems or bleeding from the lining of your stomach.
  • Narcotic medications prescribed for pain can cause side effects, such as drowsiness or confusion. If your job requires the operation of heavy machinery, such as driving a truck, you may not be able to perform your duties until you are better.
  • In some cases, steroids are injected the epidural space of the spinal canal. While steroids help to relieve swelling, they can cause side effects such as non-positional headaches, anxiety, fever, high blood sugars, and decreased immunity.

Do I Qualify for Benefits?

To be eligible for Social Security benefits for a herniated disc, your medical records will need to show that your symptoms are severe enough to prevent you from working at a level which would support you. Additionally, your illness needs to be expected to be disabling for at least 12 months.

As noted above, most cases of herniated discs will resolve within the first three months, and nearly all will resolve within a year. However, there are unique circumstances in which a herniated disc causes long-term damage and effects.


What Information Will I Need to Provide?

When applying for Social Security for a herniated disc, medical documentation is critical. You should obtain the following:

  • Confirmation of your diagnosis of a herniated disc from a doctor, including a full examination report of the spine. The report should include information about your gait, range of motion, motor and sensory abnormalities, and any symptoms of muscle spasm.
    Your physician should note your ability to move, such as getting on and off the table, and the results of a standing and sitting straight leg raise, also known as a LaSegue test. Finally, your physician should indicate your long-term prognosis.
  • X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, EMG results, or other imaging results that may help to confirm your diagnosis of a herniated disc. Applicants with MRI studies showing joint space narrowing or bone fusion may have a higher chance of being approved for benefits.
  • Surgical notes, if applicable.
  • Physical therapy progress notes.
  • Notes from any other health care providers that are involved in your care.

You should speak with your doctor’s office, hospital, or other health-care providers if you are missing any of the above medical reports. The more medical evidence that you have on your side, the better your chances of receiving SSDI benefits for a herniated disc.

What’s Next?

If you have suffered from a herniated disc and you believe that you may qualify for Social Security benefits, you should contact a disability advocate or lawyer in your area. When your health is suffering, it can be difficult to know where to turn or what to do next.

A qualified attorney can help you navigate the Social Security application process, leaving you time to focus on what’s most important: your health.