Can I Get Social Security Disability for Diabetes?

It's difficult to qualify for Social Security disability benefits for diabetes unless you have other complications.

Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, is a serious medical condition that left untreated, can cause debilitating, even life-threatening health concerns. But diabetes can often be controlled with medical treatment and lifestyle changes, making it difficult to qualify for Social Security disability based on the condition itself.

But that isn't always the case. If your diabetes has caused serious health problems that prevent you from working, you might qualify for disability. Here's what you need to know about how you might qualify for Social Security disability with diabetes.

What Is Diabetes and Is It a Disability?

Your body uses insulin to convert glucose (a type of sugar) into a form your cells can use for energy. When you have diabetes, either you don't produce enough insulin or your cells become insulin resistant, and glucose builds up in your blood. The symptoms of diabetes can include any or all of the following:

  • fatigue
  • frequent urination
  • being very thirsty or hungry
  • unexplained weight loss
  • irritability
  • repeated infections or cuts that are slow to heal, and
  • tingling or numbness in your hands and feet.

There are two types of diabetes, and both can be life-long conditions:

  • Type 1 diabetes (formerly called "juvenile diabetes") is usually diagnosed in children and younger adults, and it's the type of diabetes in which your body produces too little or no insulin.
  • Type 2 diabetes (formerly called "adult-onset diabetes") is the type of diabetes in which your cells forget how to use insulin. It's most common in adults, but children can also develop it.

Diabetes can often be controlled with medication and lifestyle changes. But when diabetes goes untreated and too much glucose builds up in your body, long-term—and sometimes disabling—complications can result, including:

  • neuropathy in your feet (nerve damage and a loss of feeling)
  • kidney disease (nephropathy)
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • gastroparesis (a type of nerve damage in which food stays too long in the stomach)
  • eye and vision problems
  • peripheral arterial disease (blood vessels in your legs become blocked and blood flow is decreased), and
  • depression.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits with Diabetes

Diabetes alone generally isn't enough to qualify you for disability. But if your diabetes has prevented you from working for at least a year, then you might qualify for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplement Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. It is generally easier to get disability benefits if you've developed long-term complications from your diabetes.

Meeting a Disability Listing

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has created a Listing of Impairments (the "Blue Book") that explains the criteria you must meet to qualify for disability benefits based on specific medical conditions. But diabetes isn't included in the Blue Book (although some complications of diabetes are).

So you can't be found disabled under the Listing of Impairments simply by showing that you have diabetes. But you might be able to meet one of the listings closely related to the complications of diabetes.

Complications of Diabetes: Chronic Hyperglycemia and Hypoglycemia

Your diabetes might have caused hyperglycemia, which is an unusually high level of glucose in your blood, or hypoglycemia, which is an unusually low level of glucose in your blood. Both hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia can lead to several other conditions that are included in the listings, such as:

  • Cardiac arrhythmias (listing 4.05). You'd need medical documentation by electrocardiography (an EKG or ECG) showing you have cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) that:
    • aren't controlled by medical treatment
    • have occurred at least three times in a 12-month period, and
    • have resulted in episodes of cardiac syncope (loss of consciousness) or near syncope (having altered consciousness and not feeling merely lightheaded).
  • Diabetic retinopathy (listing 2.00). This listing describes the requirements for visual problems, including loss of visual acuity (unable to perform fine work) or of visual fields (unable to see in your peripheral field of vision). You'll need eye exams in your medical history that use the Early Treatment Diabetic Retinopathy Study (ETDRS) test chart.
  • Amputation (listing 1.20). If you've had a foot amputated due to nerve damage and poor circulation, you'll need to show:
    • you have long-term complications of the remaining limb
    • medical documentation that you can't use a prosthesis, and
    • a documented medical need for a walker, bilateral canes, bilateral crutches, or a wheelchair requiring the use of both hands.
  • Coronary artery disease and peripheral vascular disease (PVD). This can include:
  • Diabetic nephropathy (listing 6.06). You'd need to show extreme edema (swelling) for at least three months despite therapy and a certain level of serum albumin (a plasma protein) or proteinuria (too much protein in the urine).
  • Diabetic peripheral neuropathies (listing 11.14). You'd need to show significant problems of motor function in both hands, both feet, or one foot and one hand despite following prescribed treatment.
  • Poorly healing skin and bacterial infections (listing 8.04). You'd need to show widespread ulcerating skin lesions that last for at least three months despite treatment. These lesions would need to make it difficult for you to walk or use your hands.

Do Your Diabetes Complications Equal a Listing?

Uncontrolled diabetes can be disabling well before neuropathy or retinopathy are actually diagnosed—or before extreme measures like amputation have to be taken. For instance, high blood glucose can result in fatigue. And low blood glucose can cause impaired brain function, resulting in any or all of the following:

  • light-headedness
  • sleepiness
  • confusion, and
  • difficulty speaking.

When your blood sugar is too low, you might also experience:

  • nervousness and shakiness
  • excessive perspiration
  • anxiety, and
  • weakness.

These symptoms can be compared to the fatigue associated with disorders like:

If you're diabetic, you might experience symptoms like balance disturbance, tinnitus, and progressive hearing loss that fluctuates in the same pattern or frequency as Meniere's disease (listing 2.07) or even symptoms of bipolar disorder (listing 12.04).

You'll probably need to hire a disability lawyer, who can creatively argue that your condition equals a listing like the ones mentioned above.

Qualifying for Disability Based on Residual Functional Capacity

If your diabetes isn't severe enough or hasn't progressed long enough to meet one of the above listings, you might still qualify for disability based on a medical-vocational allowance. If Social Security determines that your condition prevents you from doing any kind of work, you'll qualify for disability.

To determine what kind of work you can be expected to do, Social Security will consider your age, work history, and your residual functional capacity (RFC)—the most that you can do in a job given your condition and limitations. Social Security will consider how well you can still do things like:

  • sit, stand, and walk
  • use your arms and hands
  • get along with coworkers and the public, and
  • follow simple instructions in a work setting.

Social Security will determine your RFC after reviewing your medical history, including your doctor's statements about your ability to function. Your own statements (as well as those from friends and family) about your limitations will also be considered. You'll then receive an RFC for:

  • sedentary work
  • light work
  • medium work, or
  • heavy work.

For example, if you have neuropathy in your legs from your diabetes, you might be unable to stand and walk for long periods of time. Your RFC would likely be limited to sedentary work.

If you have poor control over your glucose levels during the day, your RFC might reflect that you can't concentrate for long periods of time. This could affect your ability to perform a large number of jobs.

Similarly, if you suffer from severe fatigue or depression, your RFC might state that you're unable to perform even sedentary work on a consistent and regular basis. That would likely support your disability claim.

And if you're over age 50, Social Security might determine that you're disabled even if you can do sedentary or light work.

Get Help With Your Disability Claim for Diabetes

Proving you can't work because of your diabetes can be a difficult task. You should work with your doctor to ensure all your diabetes complications and the impairments they cause are well documented in your medical records and shared with Social Security.

Your doctor can help explain how your diabetes prevents you from working by completing an RFC assessment form. There are separate forms for physical RFC and mental RFC. If the complications from diabetes include both physical and mental limitations (like depression or anxiety), you should ask your doctors to fil out both RFC forms.

Learn what you can do if you're filing for disability without a doctor's support.

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