Can You Get Disability After Back Surgery?

Corrective surgery for degenerative discs, stenosis, or other back problems can leave you unable to work and eligible to receive disability benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Many patients who undergo back surgery don't come out of it with less pain than before the surgery. Some even have more pain after surgery. But if you can't go back to work after having back surgery, can you qualify for Social Security disability benefits?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) doesn't include back surgery specifically on its list of impairments that will automatically qualify you for disability benefits. But if you're unable to work, the pain caused by your surgery and your underlying back problems might be enough to get you Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.

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 issues, but it's not always successful. Unfortunately, chronic pain isn't 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 (ADR) or total disc replacement (TDR) is a surgery that replaces degenerated discs to reduce painful movement between the vertebrae.
  • Spinal fusion, also called arthrodesis, connects two or more unstable vertebrae together to eliminate motion and instability and relieve pain.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits After Back Surgery

Many patients who've had back surgery take a year or more to recover well enough to go back to work. But the SSA usually considers only three to four months long enough to recover from most back surgeries.

The SSA requires that an impairment has lasted or is expected to last at least 12 months to qualify for benefits. As a result, the SSA isn't likely to expect your impairment from routine spinal surgery to last long enough for you to qualify for disability.

That said, you might still qualify for benefits if:

  • your spinal surgery actually caused new problems, or
  • your underlying back problem wasn't repaired and is still severe enough to qualify on its own.

Continuing Back Conditions That Can Qualify for Disability Benefits

Back surgery can sometimes fix conditions like:

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

But if you still have the condition after back surgery (a "failed" back surgery") and your condition severely impairs your ability to work, you might qualify for benefits by meeting one of Social Security's spinal listings, though it's not easy. Learn more about the SSA's listing requirements to get disability for back problems.

When Back Surgery Causes a New Problem

Some patients experience complications after back surgery, including:

  • infection (either in a vertebra or at the surgical opening)
  • arachnoiditis (painful inflammation of a membrane that surrounds the spinal nerves)
  • epidural fibrosis (scar tissue that forms near a nerve root)
  • damage to a nerve (resulting in weakness and pain in the legs, bowel or bladder issues, or permanent loss of sensation), or
  • spinal instability (from unfused vertebrae).

Social Security doesn't have a specific listing for back surgery problems. But, depending on your symptoms, you could meet the requirements of the listings for nerve root compression or spinal stenosis.

When Reduced Capacity Qualifies for Disability Benefits

If you haven't been diagnosed post-surgery as having a severe condition like stenosis, nerve root compression, or arachnoiditis, you might still be able to get benefits if you're unable to work because of your "functional limitations" (your inability to perform certain actions or doctor-ordered restrictions on certain activities).

As part of its evaluation process, the SSA will examine your doctor's notes on your functional limitations 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 like no heavy lifting 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. These restrictions will likely affect your RFC rating.

For instance, let's say your doctor says you should only lift more than 50 pounds occasionally (but you can lift 25 pounds frequently), and your doctor limits you to occasional bending only. The SSA will rate these restrictions as a medium RFC. With a medium RFC, the SSA will expect that you can still do a lot of jobs, even if you've 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. A light RFC gives you a better chance of getting benefits, especially if you're 55 or older.

When Your RFC Says You Should Be Allowed Benefits

First, a bit of background: When the SSA determines there are no jobs you can be expected to do with your RFC, you can qualify for disability benefits under a "medical-vocational allowance."

Most people with back problems and post-surgical problems who get Social Security disability benefits are approved under a medical-vocational allowance. But your chances of getting disability through a medical-vocational allowance are only good if you're an older worker.

For instance, if the SSA says you can do medium work, you won't be considered disabled unless:

  • you're 55 or older
  • you have less than a 6th-grade education, and
  • you have limited job skills.

In most other cases, if you can do medium work, the SSA will presume that you can learn and do a new job.

If the SSA says you can do light work, on the other hand, you'll be considered disabled if you're 55 or over and have limited skills. Younger workers will face more challenges when trying to qualify for SSDI or SSI based on problems after back surgery. If you don't meet the SSA's listing requirements for disability, you might benefit from consulting a lawyer who specializes in disability claims.

Learn more about how your RFC affects your chance of getting a medical-vocational allowance for back problems.

Filing a Disability Claim After Back Surgery

If you believe you might qualify for Social Security disability, you can file your application online. Or call the SSA at 800-772-1213 to schedule an appointment to file by telephone or in person at your local Social Security office.

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