Disability Determination Following Back Surgery

Corrective surgery for degenerative disks, stenosis, or other back problems may leave someone unable to work - "disabled" according to Social Security - and eligible to receive monthly disability benefits.

Many patients who undergo back surgery do not come out of it with less pain than before the surgery, and some even have more pain after surgery. If you can’t go back to work after back surgery, you may be wondering about collecting Social Security disability benefits. While the Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn’t recognize back surgery specifically as something that will get you a grant of automatic disability benefits, the pain caused by your surgery and your underlying back problems may be enough to get you SSDI or SSI disability benefits if you are unable to work.

Types of Back Surgery That Can Leave You Disabled

Back surgery is usually used as a last resort to improve back problems that cause pain and mobility problems, but it's not always successful. Chronic pain is not uncommon after back surgery.

Common types of corrective surgery include the following:

  • Discectomy removes the herniated portion of a ruptured disc.
  • Laminectomy removes bone to enlarge the spinal canal to relieve nerve pressure caused by stenosis (or to allow access for a discectomy).
  • Artificial disc replacement is a new surgery that replaces degenerated discs to reduce painful movement between the vertebrae.
  • Spinal fusion, also called arthrodesis, connects two or more unstable vertebrae to add eliminate motion and instability between adjacent vertebrae resulting from a deteriorated disc or when an intervertebral fracture has caused instability.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits Post-Back Surgery

Even though many patients who go through back surgery have not recovered well enough to go back to work within a year, the SSA usually considers a three- to four-month period sufficient for recovery from most back surgeries. Since the SSA requires that an impairment has lasted or is expected to last 12 months to qualify for benefits, the SSA is not likely to expect impairment from routine spinal surgery to last long enough to qualify for benefits. That said, if the spinal surgery actually caused new problems, or if your underlying back problem, such as nerve root compression from herniated disc, was not repaired and is still severe enough to qualify on its own, you may qualify for benefits.

Conditions That Can Qualify

Back surgery is often the last resort to fix the following conditions:

  • spinal stenosis
  • arachnoiditis
  • spinal nerve root compression
  • disc herniation or radiculitis, the inflammation of a spinal nerve root caused by herniated disc
  • degenerative disc disease, if severe and causing nerve compression, or
  • fractured vertebrae causing instability and compression (can be caused by osteoporosis or trauma).

If you still have the condition after back surgery and your condition severely impairs your ability to work, you may qualify for benefits, though it’s not easy.

Reduced Functional Capacity That Qualifies for Disability Benefits

If you haven’t been diagnosed post-surgery as having a serious condition like stenosis, nerve root compression, or arachnoiditis, you might still be able to get benefits if your functional limitations are so great that you cannot work. As part of its sequential evaluation process, the SSA will evaluate your doctor’s notes on your functional limitations (restrictions) and give you a rating of the type of work it thinks you can do (sedentary work, light work, medium work, or heavy work). This is called your residual functional capacity (RFC).

If you've had back surgery, your doctor likely gave you restrictions of no lifting heavy objects and limited bending over. Of course, right after surgery your restrictions will be greater, but after a few months, your doctor may give you a permanent restriction of lifting more than 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, as well as occasional bending only. The SSA will rate these restrictions as a medium RFC. With a medium RFC, however, the SSA will expect that you can still do a lot of jobs, even if you have always done heavy work such as moving. If your back surgery was less successful than expected, your doctor might restrict you to lifting 10 pounds frequently, which would instead limit you to light work.

When Your RFC Says You Should Be Allowed Benefits

If the SSA determines there are no jobs you can be expected to do with your RFC, there’s a chance you could qualify for disability benefits under a "medical-vocational allowance." Most people with back problems and post-surgical problems who are approved for Social Security disability benefits are approved under a medical-vocational allowance. However, your chances of getting disability through a medical-vocational allowance are low unless you are over 55. For instance, if the SSA says you can do medium work, you won’t be considered disabled unless you’re older than 55, have less than a 6th grade education, and have limited skills. In most other cases, if you can do medium work, the SSA will presume that you can learn and do a new job. For more information on how your RFC affects your chance of a medical-vocational allowance, see our article on Disability Determination for Back Problems.

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