Social Security disability benefits may be available for people with scoliosis, depending on the severity of the condition. Scoliosis alone will generally not trigger disability benefits, unless it is so severe that it limits movement or affects respiratory or cardiac functions.
What Is Scoliosis?
Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. (There are other types of curvature of the spine, including kyphosis and kyphoscoliosis.) Scoliosis is either idiopathic (cause unknown) or congenital, meaning spinal deformity is present at birth. Scoliosis can be associated with spina bifida, cerebral palsy, or spinal muscular atrophy or can appear on its own. Scoliosis most often appears in adolescence, and adolescent females are much more likely than males to have curvature of the spine. Scoliosis is often treated by the wearing of a brace during adolescence or by spinal fusion during surgery.
How the SSA Determines If Your Scoliosis Is Disabling
People with scoliosis generally have a tough time getting approved for Social Security disability, unless their condition is combined with other physical or mental impairments. The Social Security Administration's (SSA’s) “blue book” of listed disabilities does not include scoliosis. That means that scoliosis is not one of the medical conditions considered severe enough by the SSA to automatically qualify for benefits when the severity reaches a certain level.
Instead, in the case of scoliosis, the SSA reviews your medical information to decide whether you have the physical capacity to do some kind of work (sedentary, light, or medium) as well as the education or skills required to do any type of work. To decide whether you can do even sedentary work, the SSA will look at your treating doctor’s reports, your xrays, and other medical documentation. If the SSA finds that you don’t have the capacity to do any type of work, you can get disability benefits approved under a “medical-vocational allowance,” meaning that the SSA considered your medical impairment along with your lack of vocational ability and determined that you were disabled.
How Scoliosis Can Be Disabling
Often people suffering from scoliosis, or past corrective spinal surgery associated with scoliosis, have pain that’s caused by sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time. Others suffer from fatigue and have difficulty walking or even breathing. Those who suffer from “flat-back syndrome" caused by the insertion of Harrington rods or other straightening instruments during back surgery, often have difficulty standing and walking. Your medical records will have to prove that these problems are so severe that you can’t work.
Note: If you have a child with severe scoliosis and your income is low enough for your child to qualify for SSI, the SSA may find your child disabled and eligible for a monthly SSI payment. The SSA allows severe scoliosis to equal an official impairment listing (and thus be eligible for benefits) if a child has difficulty walking, has problems resulting from fixation of the dorsolumbar or cervical part of the spine, or has respiratory or cardiac problems resulting from scoliosis.
Medical Evidence to Prove Your Scoliosis Is a Disability
The SSA will consider the medical records it gets from your treating orthopedic doctor. In particular, the SSA looks at restrictions your doctor places on your ability to work (for example, no lifting or bending, or no sitting for longer than two hours) and medical tests such as x-rays. Your doctor’s records should also include information such as the range of motion of your spine, the scoliosis’s effect on your gait, and whether you use a cane or other device for walking. The SSA is also required to consider your statements about the severity of your pain.
It's important to show how much your back pain is interfering with your life outside of work. To help document your disability, keep a pain diary. Include details of when pain worsens and what causes it to worsen, such as standing for more than one half hour. You and your doctor should both document your daily symptoms and how they restrict your activities of Daily life (ADLs), such as your ability to cook, clean the house, and so on.
The SSA will lower your ability to work (your residual functional capacity, or RFC) if you have difficulty doing routine daily tasks or if your medical records show that you need to change positions frequently, can’t do work that requires bending over, or have difficulty breathing. The lower your RFC, the less likely it is that you can do any kind of work, and the more likely it is that you will be granted disability benefits.
Applying for Disability Benefits for Scoliosis
Call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to submit an application through your local SSA office. Once you have submitted all necessary medical and financial information to the SSA, a claims examiner and medical consultant will consider your claim and make a decision as to your entitlement to SSDI or SSI benefits.
If Your Social Security Application Is Denied
Most people who apply for disability based on scoliosis alone (especially those under 55 with less than severe cases of scoliosis) are initially denied disability benefits. But some of these cases can be won on appeal. You can file a request for reconsideration by yourself, but hiring a lawyer at this point will help your chances of getting disability benefits on appeal. When you’re interviewing disability lawyers, ask if they’ve been successful in winning any scoliosis cases on appeal.