Getting Social Security Disability for Chronic Migraine Headaches

It's quite difficult—but not impossible—to get Social Security disability benefits for chronic migraines. Learn about qualifying for SSDI for this condition.

Most headaches aren't severe enough or frequent enough to prevent a person from working. But for some, migraines can be so debilitating that sufferers really can't work. Migraines are a severe form of headache that can cause nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. They can be frequent (daily or weekly) and can last several hours or several days.

If you suffer from chronic migraine headaches, you might miss work a lot, making it hard to hold down a job. Your migraines can be debilitating enough that you're unable to work on a regular basis.

If you have frequent, long-lasting, severe migraines that keep you from working and that don't respond to treatment, you might be able to collect Social Security disability benefits (SSDI). But you'll probably face an uphill battle getting them.

This article will cover how the Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates disabilities due to migraines, what you must show to prove your chronic migraines are disabling, and how to apply for SSDI for migraine headaches.

What Is a Migraine?

A typical migraine is usually described as a throbbing pain on one side of the head. Besides head pain, migraines can also include nausea, vomiting, and sensitivities to light, sound, and mild exertion (like climbing stairs). Migraines generally last anywhere from four hours to three days.

About a third of migraine sufferers experience "migraine with aura" (which used to be called "classic migraine"). An aura is a warning sign, usually coming on as a visual disturbance like flashing lights, colors, or blurred vision in both eyes. It generally comes on about 15 minutes before other migraine symptoms begin.

Since migraines often worsen with physical exertion (even simple movements), most migraine sufferers aren't able to work when they have one of these extreme headaches.

Chronic Migraine Causes and Treatments

Migraines are thought to be caused by the overactivation of nerve fibers within the walls of blood vessels in the brain. What triggers migraines varies for different people, but some common migraine triggers are:

  • lack of sleep
  • job stress
  • loud noises or bright lights, or
  • food, or skipping meals.

Doctors generally treat migraines with pain medications, beta-blockers, anti-seizure medication, and triptans such as Imitrex (sumatriptan) or Relpax (eletriptan).

Are Chronic Migraines a Disability?

Headaches—even chronic migraine headaches—aren't one of the medical conditions considered severe enough by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to have an official impairment listing in Social Security's blue book. An impairment listing is a medical definition that spells out the symptoms, tests, and limitations required for an immediate Social Security disability award.

Social Security has released a ruling on headache disorders that allows disability examiners to use the epilepsy listing to evaluate migraines (and cluster headaches). To "equal" the epilepsy listing, migraines must occur once a week or every other week, despite treatment, and interfere with daytime activities. See our article on Social Security's epilepsy listing for more information.

However, it isn't easy to equal the epilepsy listing requirements with migraines. If the SSA doesn't agree that your migraines are as disruptive as epileptic seizures, the agency will look at your medical evidence to determine if your impairment is severe enough to keep you from working. As a result, to be successful in your disability claim, you must provide substantial medical documentation to demonstrate your headaches' disabling effects.

Proving Your Migraines Are Disabling

There's no laboratory test to prove a headache is a migraine or so severe that it's disabling. And a physical examination probably won't be able to uncover anything wrong with you. The SSA will need to rely on your statements about the severity of your migraines and your doctors' reports documenting your symptoms. The SSA, however, doesn't have to believe your claims. That's why medical documentation is so important in migraine cases.

For SSA medical consultants to determine whether your migraines are severe and frequent enough to create a disability, they'll want to see the following documentation:

  • reports by the doctor who primarily treats your condition, such as a neurologist, pain management specialist, or headache specialist
  • specific documentation of your daily symptoms and migraine episodes to measure the frequency of occurrence, duration, location, and intensity of your migraines, as well as their effects on your daily living activities, and
  • documentation of medications taken and treatments tried, whether successful or unsuccessful and any side effects you experienced from them.

Your treating doctor should provide a comprehensive report to the SSA that includes:

  • how your "activities of daily living" (ADLs) are affected by your migraines
  • how often you get migraines
  • how long your migraines last
  • how severe your migraines are
  • a description of a specific migraine attack, either witnessed by your doctor or as told to your doctor by a friend or relative
  • how your migraines interfere with your daytime activities (such as needing to lie down in a dark and quiet room)
    what triggers a migraine for you, and
  • the effectiveness of any treatments tried, including alternative therapies such as biofeedback or acupuncture.

To help document your disability, keep a migraine diary. Include details of the following:

  • when pain worsens and what causes it to worsen
  • when you have nausea or vomiting
  • any changes in vision, and
  • whether and how often you experience fatigue, confusion, or light-headedness.

Also, record how long you have symptoms following a migraine, such as fatigue, loss of appetite, and inability to concentrate.

It's essential to show how much your migraines are interfering with your life and your ability to work by showing you have repeatedly asked for help from doctors and tried different treatments. It's also important to show that you've taken steps to try to avoid migraines, such as eliminating certain foods that might trigger your migraines or changing irregular sleep patterns.

Headaches Combined With Other Medical Problems

Headaches alone, even migraines, might not be enough to prove disability in many cases. But when headaches are combined with other disabling impairments, the SSA might consider that their combined effect is disabling.

Headaches can be caused by many illnesses and often contribute to anxiety or depression. Be sure to have your doctor document your headache pain if you're applying for disability benefits based on other impairments as well.

Applying for Benefits for Chronic Migraine Headaches

The first step in getting SSDI for migraine headaches is filing an application with the SSA. In addition to medical evidence about your condition, you'll need to share personal information, including documentation regarding your employment history. (Learn more in our step-by-step article on applying for SSDI and SSI.)

You can apply by phone or call the SSA to set up an appointment to apply at your local SSA office. You can reach the SSA on their toll-free number, 800-772-1213, between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m. Be advised that you may encounter long wait times. For the deaf or hearing impaired, there's a toll-free "TTY" number, 800-325-0778.

You can also apply for SSDI online. You can complete the online application from anywhere at a time that works best for you. And you don't need to complete the application in one session.

After you file your application, the SSA might ask you to undergo an independent medical evaluation by a different doctor. A "consultative examination" might be required if you haven't received medical treatment for your migraines in the last 30-60 days or if the claims examiner needs data from a specific test. Although the SSA pays for the consultative exam, you have the right to have it scheduled at a time that's convenient for you.

Once you've submitted all the necessary information to the SSA, a disability examiner and medical consultant will consider your claim and decide if you qualify for SSDI or SSI benefits.

If Your SSDI Application Is Denied

Most people who apply for disability based on migraine headaches alone are initially denied benefits. But some of these cases can be won on appeal.

You can file a request for reconsideration by yourself, but hiring a lawyer at this point will help your chances of getting benefits. When you're interviewing disability lawyers, ask if they've successfully won any migraine cases on appeal.

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