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Social Security Administration Disability and Back Conditions

Is a back condition disabling?

There is no doubt that a severe back injury can be one of the most debilitating health conditions that workers face that make it impossible to work. Whether it is from lower, upper or middle back pain caused by degenerative disc disease, arthritis, nerve damage or disc herniation, if you have a severe back injury, you may need help.

Common symptoms of back injuries

There are a variety of common back injury symptoms from degenerative disc disease, disc herniation or spinal stenosis can range from moderate to severe:

If you have a severe back  such as disc herniation or spinal stenosis the Social Security Administration has two methods it uses to determine if your condition is so severe that you cannot work. First, they will evaluate your medical evidence and symptoms to see if it meets or equals a listing on the Social Security Administration's listing of Impairments. Next, if they determine your condition does not meet a listing, they will determine whether or not you have the residual capacity to work through a medical vocational allowance. This blog will specifically address how claimants can meet a listing.

Meeting a Listing in the Social Security Administration’s Listing of Impairments

The Social Security Listing of Impairments (also known as the Blue Book) is a list of conditions and symptoms that the SSA automatically considers severe enough to not allow claimants to perform substantial gainful activity.

The Social Security Administration does have a listing for disorders of the spine which is found under 1.00 Musculoskeletal System, Section 1.04 Disorders of the spine. Under this section is included the following conditions: herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet arthritis, vertebral fracture, resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord.

Having one of these conditions (spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, or disc herniation) will not be enough to automatically win Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income. Additionally, the SSA will be looking for “evidence of nerve root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic (or nervous system) 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).”

The Social Security Administration also looks for spinal arachnoiditis (pain disorder caused by the inflammation of the arachnoid, one of the membranes around the nerves of the spinal cord) which causes manifested by severe burning or sensation, causing the claimant to have to reposition themselves more than once every two hours.

Claimants who do not have any of those symptoms may be found disabling if they suffer from lumbar spinal stenosis which causes pseudoclaudication, which is a fancy, medical term for an inflammation of the nerves which emanate from the spinal cord. This pain should cause nonradicular pain and weakness and leave the claimant unable to ambulate effectively.

What evidence is the SSA looking for?

Claimants with a severe back condition such as spinal stenosis or degenerative disc disease should have MRIs, X-rays, CT scans and potentially an EMG report to support their medical claims. The doctor should also provide objective medical information about the claimant’s condition including a range of tests of the claimant’s gait, range of motion of the spine, straight leg test, evidence of their inability to walk on their heels or toes, inability to squat and rise, and measurements of muscle atrophy.

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