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Is Chronic Pain a Disability?

Empowering those in pain to qualify for & get the benefits they need

Terri Leichty
Reviewed by 
Charlie Merill. MSPT
December 8, 2021
 min. read

Alice has been struggling with inflammatory arthritis for years. Starting with occasional flare-ups, her discomfort has progressed to constant joint pain and chronic stiffness in her knees. Her frequent fatigue makes it difficult for her to work and keep up with social obligations

Alice has visited several doctors and has medical records proving she has been suffering from a physical impairment for over a year. She knows there’s a stigma revolving around disabilities in the U.S,  which makes her a little reluctant to admit she may have a disability. 

But she’s also heard that her chronic pain may qualify her for SSI disability benefits. Is it worth the stigma as she works to overcome her discomfort?

Keep reading to learn the benefits of classifying your chronic pain as a disability in the U.S. 

What is a Disability According to the U.S. Government?

The U.S. government defines disabilities in different contexts. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), defines a person with a disability as someone “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This definition includes people like Alice, who have a well-documented history of physical impairment.

With Social Security disability benefits, the government considers you disabled if your condition is listed as severe, has lasted (or is anticipated to last) a minimum of 12 months, and has stopped you from doing your job at a “substantial gainful activity” level. People with desk jobs who suffer from arthritis in their hands and wrists may need to leave their job overtime because of their chronic pain. 

To be eligible for state vocational rehabilitation (VR) services, the impairment must cause a substantial impediment, which prohibits you from doing your job. An example would be a hairdresser who suffers from chronic pain in their shoulders—a hairdresser can’t do their job if they can’t lift their arms. 

The VA, which serves military veterans and their families considers a disability to be a long-lasting ailment that starts within one year of discharge. It can also refer to illnesses caused from being a prisoner of war or being exposed to toxic materials or chemicals. In short, mental or physical impairment needs to be directly linked to active military service.

Are There Benefits if My Chronic Pain is Deemed a Disability?

There is a light at the end of the pain tunnel. As you work through your chronic pain, there are benefits available to you—as long as the U.S government classifies your impairment as a disability. 

Social Security disability benefits (either SSDI or SSI) can provide you with a substantial monthly income if you have a disability that regularly limits your ability to function. These benefits can range between $700 and $1,700 per month, depending on your case. Family members of a disabled person may also qualify for benefits. 

Similarly, the VA offers monthly, tax-free compensation to veterans who qualify for its disability benefits.

If you qualify for Social Security disability benefits, aside from receiving a monthly payment, you can also enroll in dependable medical insurance (Medicaid for SSI recipients and Medicare for those with SSDI). 

With these benefits, your healthcare will cost either a small monthly premium, or nothing at all, depending on the state you live in. If your disability prohibits you from driving, Social Security insurance ensures you’ll receive free transportation to and from medical appointments (upon a doctor’s approval). This includes free ambulance services if needed.

Receiving disability benefits through the U.S. government will also give you access to programs aimed toward helping you re-enter the workforce. Two of these programs include Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) and Ticket to Work. Both are optional, but available to all benefit recipients. 

How Do I Access These Benefits?

When applying for Social Security disability benefits, your chronic pain, or “medically determinable impairment,” will need to have been well documented by medical professionals for at least 1 year. No matter how limiting your condition is, you won’t be approved without documented proof like medical records, lab tests, X-rays, or exam results.

If you don’t have documentation that covers at least a year, but your doctor anticipates that your impairment is likely to continue for at least a year, this can be used toward your application. 

You can find a list of impairments in the Social Security blue book that automatically qualify sufferers for disability benefits. But unfortunately, you won’t find chronic pain on that list. 

There are, however, other ailments listed there that are frequently associated with chronic pain.They can include: somatoform and neurological disorders, back injury, inflammatory arthritis, chronic renal disease, and inflammatory bowel disease. 

If your chronic pain doesn’t fall under these ailments, you’ll need to qualify for benefits by going through a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment. It isn’t always easy to prove chronic pain through an RFC assessment though.. 

The  challenge to objectively prove the existence of pain can make qualifying for disability benefits difficult. Be well prepared for your RFC assessment by ensuring you and your doctor answer the following questions in your documentation: 

  • How intense is the pain? 
  • Where is the pain located? 
  • How often do you experience pain and how long does it last? 
  • What triggers the pain and/or makes it worse?
  • How does the pain impact your life and your ability to carry out normal activities?
  • What (if any) medications do you take for the pain? (Include the type, dosage, side effects, and effectiveness)
  • Which treatments or methods have you used to help ease the pain? (Physical or chiropractic therapy, massage, acupuncture, yoga, applying heat/cold)
  • Do you have any functional limitations due to your pain? 
  • How long is your pain expected to last?
  • How long is your pain expected to continue limiting your functional abilities?

Record everything. Provide ongoing medical and treatment-related (even non-traditional and non-medical treatments) documentation that prove you suffer from chronic and disabling pain. The more you can show how it limits your ability to function, the better. 

When applying for benefits, you’ll be asked about your “activities of daily living” (ADLs). Give details about all the routine things that are affected because of your pain. List what you can and can’t do—brush your teeth properly, get dressed by yourself, get into the bathtub, shower, go up or down the stairs, drive etc) If your ADLs appear unaffected by your chronic pain, there’s less chance that Social Security will approve your application for benefits. 

If you’re a military veteran, the best way to access disability benefits is to visit the VA website and submit an application online. You’ll need to prove that you were discharged from the military and that you suffer from a disability (via medical documents). If you’re trying to secure benefits for your family, you’ll also need to supply dependency records (marriage certificates and birth certificates).

Should I Feel Okay With Calling My Chronic Pain a Disability?

Everyone has limitations, struggles, and weaknesses. We all have our own challenges, and are impacted by things differently. There are millions of people in the world, just like Alice, who suffer from chronic pain. 

There’s nothing wrong with accepting you may have a disability. Your ailment doesn’t define who you are, and there’s no shame in seeking or accepting help so you can work towards getting well again. Everyone longs to live a life they love.

If applying for disability benefits is the right decision for you and your family, you’ve already made an empowered decision. 

Are You Ready to Discuss the Pain That’s Holding You Back?

At Lin Health, we want to help progress on your path to healing and provide you with additional resources for relieving your chronic pain. 

Our professional health coaches will provide you with guidance and support every step of the way. We can chat about your pain, or navigate our complex and bureaucratic health system—either way, we’re here for you. 

Start today and see the difference a personalized pain management plan can make.

Start finding real relief from chronic pain today - give Lin a try.

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