Broken bones in the leg can be very painful and take an extended amount of time to heal. If the healing process does not go as planned and the bone does not heal properly, you may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits.
Overview of Tibia and Fibula Breaks
The tibia and fibula, the two bones that make up the lower leg, are an important part of the knee and ankle joints. Because of the strength of these bones, it takes a significant force to cause a break, so a fracture is often accompanied by other injuries to the body.
The less obvious symptoms of a broken tibia or fibula include:
- inability to walk or put any weight on the leg
- deformity or instability of the leg, and
- loss of feeling in the foot.
Complications can arise when the break occurs or shortly after the bone is broken and can include:
- Bone fragments that cut or tore nearby muscles, nerves, or blood vessels.
- Compartment syndrome, which is a swelling in the leg that cuts off the blood supply to the leg. This is a serious condition that often requires emergency surgery.
- Deep bone infection caused by open fractures (where the bone is exposed to the air), and
- Blood clots.
Complications can arise due to treatment (mainly surgery) or due to improper healing of the bone. Complications can include:
- bone failing to heal together
- bone healing in an incorrect position
- leg shortening
- injuries to the nerves or blood vessels (which may cause foot drop, which is a condition in which can affect your ability to walk properly)
- skin loss due to thinness of skin over the shin
- loss of knee or ankle motion, which can be caused by traumatic arthritis, and
- amputation if damage to leg or infection in leg cannot be healed.
Qualifying for Disability Benefits Due to a Broken Leg
Most people with broken legs wear a cast for three to six months and afterwards are able to go back to their work and regular activities. But if your leg does not heal within 12 months and it affects your ability to work, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
There are three ways in which you can qualify for Social Security Disability benefits. First, you can prove that you meet the requirements of a disability listing from the Social Security “Blue Book,” which contains a list of impairments that are predetermined to be disabling based on their severity. Second, you can "equal" a listing by showing you have an impairment very similar to a listing and it is the same in duration and severity as the listing. And, third, you can show that you are unable to work.
Meeting a Disability Listing
There is a listing in the Blue Book that covers broken leg bones, specifically, the tibia (the weight-bearing bone). This listing requires a break in your tibia with:
- an X-ray or other imaging showing that the bone has not healed
- a physical exam in which the doctor could feel or tell by movement that the bones had not grown back together properly, and
- the inability to walk effectively (meaning for any substantial distance or period of time).
The injury has to have lasted for 12 months or be expected to last at least 12 months in order to qualify for disability benefits.
Another listing that those with a tibia or fibula fracture may be able to meet is the listing for major dysfunction of a joint. If the break is close to the joint and has affected the joint and the muscles or bones that make up the joint, you may meet this listing.
Equaling a Disability Listing
Fibula fractures are not included in the above listing, but if a break of the fibula causes the same impairments as a tibia break, you may be able to receive disability benefits. To "equal a listing," it is important to prove the similarities between the two impairments and show how they are equal in duration and severity.
Additionally, tibia breaks that have healed completely but still cause the same impairments as a bone that has not healed properly may be able to equal the tibia fracture listing.
Inability to Work
When individuals break their tibia or fibula, they usually have significant limitations on their movement. Individuals cannot put any weight on the leg with the broken bone and need to keep their leg elevated whenever possible. In addition, prescribed medications that are given for pain may cause fatigue and decreased reaction time. These limitations will persist until the bone heals and leg muscles are regained.
For individuals whose broken leg does not heal properly, or when severe pain continues or complications arise, physical work can be difficult. Additionally, ongoing pain and the need for strong pain medications can affect one’s ability to concentrate and complete tasks, as well as increase their frustration level when completing tasks and when dealing with others in the workplace. All of these things can affect how Social Security assesses your condition and your limitations. For more information, see our article on how Social Security assesses your capacity to work.