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Is Degenerative Disc Disease a Disabling Condition?

Degenerative disc disease is a medical condition causing pain in the spine, either in the upper, middle or lower part of your back. Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of back pain. This is an age-related condition caused by wear and tear on a spinal disc. Your spinal column is comprised of disc and vertebrae. The discs between your vertebrae provide cushioning. Degeneration of the disc is when one or more of the discs in your spinal column begin to deteriorate or break down. This is generally thought to be osteoarthritis of the spine. 

Signs and Symptoms of Degenerative Disc Disease

For some, you may not experience any symptoms related to this degeneration of your discs. For others, the pain is quite excruciating. The level of pain and symptoms you experience will depend upon the severity of the breakdown of the disc and also your individual pain tolerance. 

The most common symptoms related to degenerative disc disease include pain and weakness. Typically, your pain is worse when sitting, getting better with moving and stretching. Sometimes changing positions often or even lying down will help alleviate the pain. You may also feel a bit of instability or a “giving out” sensation — a feeling of being unable to provide basic support due to the discs shrinking.

Treatment for Degenerative Disc Disease

Your medical provider will tailor your treatment recommendation based upon your symptoms. In most instances, your medical provider will first attempt to treat your symptoms conservatively through pain medication, chiropractic manipulation, epidural injections, TENS unit, or physical therapy. Degenerative disc disease is diagnosed not only through a medical exam but also through objective testing such as an MRI. An MRI will show how far the disc has degenerated, along with whether there are any other pains eliciting conditions. 

If after exhausting conservative treatment and the other factors of your case warrant it, surgical intervention may be recommended. The main surgical option would be a fusion of the spine. Your provider would fuse or bind together two vertebrae in your spine to eliminate motion at that specific spinal segment. This is usually done in cases where the disc between the two vertebrae severely deteriorates such that it is providing minimal cushioning to the vertebras. A spinal fusion has a 70-90% success rate, with the goal being to eliminate or reduce your pain and provide better overall mobility. The success rate, of course, depends upon your individual condition, including additional factors such as age and whether you are considered a smoker. Smoking cigarettes poses a huge barrier to the success of the fusion. In most cases, your medical provider will refuse to perform this type of surgery unless you quit smoking tobacco. 

Is Degenerative Disc Disease a Disability?

Whether you are disabled will simply rely upon the severity of your condition and resulting limitations. To be found disabled for social security purposes, you do not need to have undergone surgical intervention. You can be found disabled with conservative treatment recommendations or surgical intervention. The social security disability program was put in place to assist individuals who are unable to work for a minimum of 12 months due to any medical condition. If you are suffering from severe back pain that is preventing you from working, the social security disability program may be the right avenue for you. 

When applying for disability benefits, the social security administration will review your claim to determine not only the severity of your condition but also how it impacts your ability to work. You can be found disabled with degenerative disc disease in a variety of ways:

  • The first way you may be considered disabled is if you meet social security’s disability Listing 1.04. The Listings for social security are a list of conditions that social security has deemed to be so disabling that as long as you have the medical evidence to document the condition, you will be found disabled. Listing 1.04 considers disorders of the spine. You would first need to show a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease with the resulting compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord with one of the following: 
  1. Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by pain, limited motion of the spine, motor loss, and positive straight leg raising test if involving the lower spine. 
  2. Spinal arachnoiditis confirmed by operative notes, pathology reports or manifested by severe burning dysesthesias resulting in the need for changes in position more than once every 2 hours. 
  3. Spinal stenosis resulting in pseudo claudication manifested by chronic nonradicular pain and weakness resulting in the inability to ambulate effectively.

The main evidence you would need to prove you meet Listing 1.04 would be a combination of historical treatment notes documenting the severity of your pain, limitation of your mobility, along with imaging documenting the degeneration and potential spinal cord impact. 

  • You may also be found disabled under one of the medical-vocational guidelines, generally termed the GRID rules. The GRID rules apply for individuals who are over the age of 50 suffering from physical limitations. The GRIDS considers not only your age but also your education, the work you have done in the past fifteen years, along with your functional limitations. For an individual who is age 52, has a high school education, has worked a semi-skilled type of position and has functional limitations resulting in sedentary level, the individual will be found disabled using GRID Rule 201.14. If the same individual above, rather than being 52 is actually 58, they could be found disabled with a light functional limitation, as long as they are unable to perform their past relevant work. There are a number of GRID rules that can be used to find you disabled…and also not disabled. It is important to note the GRIDs only come into play when you are of a certain age, that being age 50 plus. 
  • If you are under the age of 50, you must prove you are not able to do any type of work in the national economy. To determine your work capability, social security will review your functional limitations or your residual functional capacity. Once your functional capability is determined, social security will then consider whether your limitations prevent you from performing your past relevant work along with any other work in the national economy. 

Let LaBovick Law Group’s Experienced Disability Attorneys Help Win Your Claim

Above is a list of three potential ways to be found disabled under the social security administration. There are a number of additional ways to be found disabled, all requiring medical evidence or proof of your inability to work. If you are struggling to work due to severe pain in your spine, applying for the disability program is likely a great option for you. At the LaBovick Law Group, we provide free assessments as to the validity of your disability claim. If we agree you have a good claim for benefits, we will handle your claim at any stage, from the initial filing to attending a hearing, all with no up-front costs. Call us today at (561) 623-3681 for help winning your disability claim. 

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