Is Chronic Pain a Disability?

Jun 8, 2021
 min read

Empowering those in pain to get the resources they need.

Table of Contents

There can be a stigma around disabilities in the U.S. so you might be reluctant to say you have one. But are there benefits to classifying your chronic pain in this way as you work towards overcoming it? Read on to find out if chronic pain is considered a disability in the U.S.

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

The U.S. government defines a disability according to different contexts. For instance, when we’re considering disabilities in the workplace, it’s best to refer to the definition provided by the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), which states that a person with a disability is someone “who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” (1). This definition also includes people who have a recorded history of an impairment, or others considered to have such an impairment.

When it comes to Social Security disability benefits, however, the government says that to be considered disabled a person’s condition must be “severe,” have lasted (or is anticipated to last) a minimum of 12 months, and must stop them from performing a job at a “substantial gainful activity” level (2). Meanwhile, to be eligible for state vocational rehabilitation (VR) services one must be experiencing a “substantial impediment” to employment because of their impairment.

And then there’s the VA, which serves military veterans and their families. In this case, a disability typically includes any long-lasting ailment that shows up within one year of discharge. It can also refer to an illness caused by being a prisoner of war or being exposed to toxic materials or chemicals. In other words, the disability needs to be linked to active military service (3).

Is Chronic Pain Considered a Disability?

The various ways to define a disability raise the question of whether or not chronic pain is considered one. The answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no.

Are There Benefits if My Chronic Pain is a Disability?

While many of us don’t view having a disability as favorable, there are benefits available to you as you’re working through a chronic pain condition that the U.S. government classifies as a disability. Perhaps most importantly, Social Security disability benefits (either SSDI or SSI) can provide you with a substantial monthly income if you’ve been determined to have a disability that limits your ability to function regularly. The monthly amount ranges between $700 and $1,700, depending on various factors, which many of us would consider a welcome financial boost. Your family members might also qualify for benefits. Similarly, the VA offers monthly, tax-free compensation to veterans who qualify for its disability benefits.

Outside of receiving a monthly payment, if you qualify for disability benefits, you’ll also gain access to dependable medical insurance (Medicaid for SSI recipients) (4) and Medicare (5) for those with SSDI). This means that you may pay either small monthly premiums or nothing at all (it depends on the state you live in) for healthcare. Social Security insurance also ensures that you get free transportation to and from medical appointments if your doctor approves and your disability prohibits you from driving, including ambulance rides if needed.

Finally, receiving disability benefits through the U.S. government will also grant you participation in programs that are aimed to help you reenter the workforce. Two of these programs include Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) (6) and Ticket to Work (7). They are both optional and available to all benefit recipients. 

How Do I Access These Benefits?

When it comes to Social Security disability benefits, chronic pain, or “medically determinable impairment,” needs to be well documented by medical professionals for at least one year (or is anticipated to last at least a year, continuously). Simply telling them about your symptoms, no matter how limiting they are,  won’t lead to automatic approval for benefits. Instead, you will need to show proof (like medical records, lab tests, X-rays, exam results) by qualified medical professionals that you have a physical or mental impairment.

It’s possible to find a list of impairments (in the Social Security blue book) (8) that automatically qualify sufferers for disability benefits. Unfortunately, chronic pain isn’t included on the list. However, there are other ailments listed that are frequently associated with chronic pain. These include somatoform and neurological disorders, back injury (9), inflammatory arthritis, chronic renal disease, and inflammatory bowel disease (10). If your chronic pain doesn’t fit under any of the listings, you’ll likely need to qualify for benefits by going through a residual functional capacity (RFC) assessment.

It’s not always easy to prove chronic pain via an RFC assessment, particularly because the Social Security examiners and medical consultants will never actually meet you, the claimant. As a result, you must make sure your doctor includes information about the following areas in his or her documentation:

  • how intense the pain is (intensity)
  • where the pain is located (location)
  • how often you experience pain and for how long (frequency and duration)
  • what triggers the pain and/or makes it worse
  • how the pain impacts your life and your ability to carry out normal activities
  • any medication you take for the pain (including type, dosage, side effects, and effectiveness)
  • any treatments or methods you use to help with the pain (e.g., physical or chiropractic therapy, massage, acupuncture, yoga, applying heat/cold)
  • any functional limitations you deal with because of your pain
  • the length of time your pain is expected to last
  • how long your pain is expected to continue limiting your functional abilities

Since we feel pain internally, sometimes it’s difficult to objectively prove its existence, making qualification for disability benefits challenging. Most importantly, record everything. You will want to provide ongoing medical and treatment-related (even non-traditional and non-medical treatments) documentation that can show you suffer from chronic and disabling pain that limits your ability to function. In addition, when you submit for benefits and are asked about your “activities of daily living” (ADLs), be clear about what you can and cannot accomplish in your daily life despite your pain. If your ADLs appear unaffected by your chronic pain, there’s a lesser 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 (11) 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 are trying to secure benefits for your family, you’ll also need to supply dependency records (marriage certificates and birth certificates).

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

Everyone – no matter what they say or do or how they look or act – has limitations, struggles, and weaknesses. We all have our own challenges to address. This is okay and something that we should strive to accept. It’s okay to have a disability due to pain.  It’s not your fault, it doesn’t define who you are, and there’s no shame in seeking or accepting help.  It simply frees you up to work towards getting well so you can ultimately get back to doing more of what you love. In fact, it’s empowering to take the steps to better our lives by asking for help. So take the time to consider if applying for disability benefits might be the right decision for you and your family. At Lin, we want to help you on your path to acceptance and assist you in getting the resources you need along the journey towards relieving the pain you experience every day.  So reach out to us today to start working with a health coach who will be there for you when your pain flares up or support you while you navigating an otherwise complex and bureaucratic health system.

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