Disability Benefits for Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

If you have muscle weakness and fatigue, low vision, or involuntary movements due to MS, you may be able to get disability.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that causes changes to the nervous system that can make it difficult to work. It affects more woman than men and most commonly occurs in those ages 20 through 40, although it can happen at any age.

MS symptoms widely vary in type, severity, and duration. The more common symptoms include:

  • numbness, tingling, and weakness in the extremities
  • loss of balance
  • painful muscle spasms
  • blurred vision, and
  • cognitive impairments.

Although a neurological examination can identify symptoms that may indicate the presence of MS, there is no conclusive test. In general, it’s diagnosed only after a physician has ruled out other similar conditions.

Unfortunately, there’s no known cure for MS. The most common treatment is medication, which can slow the disease’s progression and help manage symptoms. Other treatments such as physical therapy, speech therapy, and the use of assistive devices may help, and lifestyle changes such as avoiding fatigue and stress and maintaining an exercise program can also be beneficial.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits with Multiple Sclerosis

If you have been diagnosed with MS, you may suffer from symptoms that make it difficult to work. In general, to qualify for Social Security disability benefits due to MS, you’ll need to fit one of two criteria.

Meeting the Official Listing for Multiple Sclerosis

The Social Security Administration’s “Listing of Impairments” provides specific criteria for certain conditions that, if met, automatically classify you as disabled. The qualifications for multiple sclerosis are described under listing 11.09, which was updated significantly in late 2016. To be found disabled under this listing, you must have documented proof of:

  • the inability to effectively control the movement of at least two extremities (either both legs, both arms, or an arm and a leg). This must result in extreme difficulty in your ability to balance while standing or walking, to stand up from a seated position, or to use your arms and/or hands.

    OR

    • “marked” physical problems along with a "marked" limitation any one of the following:
      • thinking (understanding, remembering, or using information)
      • social interactions, or
      • concentrating or finishing tasks.

    Note that marked means worse than moderate, but less than extreme. You can think of it as severely limiting.

    For children with multiple sclerosis, meeting the first set of symptoms will qualify them for SSI (if they meet the financial requirements). The second set of criteria does nto apply to children.

    Qualifying for Benefits Based on Medical-Vocational Guidelines

    If you’ve been diagnosed with MS, but your symptoms don’t clearly meet the criteria in the multiple sclerosis impairment listing 11.09, there is another way that you can qualify for disability benefits. This is by proving that, based on Social Security’s “medical-vocational” guidelines, you cannot work a full-time job.

    The medical-vocational (or “med-voc”) guidelines evaluate your ability to perform basic work-related activities based on your age, level of education, prior work experience, and what’s known as your residual functional capacity (RFC.) Your RFC (sedentary, light, medium, or heavy) is the most strenuous type of work that the SSA feels you are capable of doing on a consistent basis. For example, you may have MS-related muscle fatigue as well as physical fatigue caused by activity. If this keeps you from standing or walking up to six hours a day, your RFC should be sedentary at best.

    The SSA will determine your RFC in conjunction with an SSA medical expert and based on your first-hand accounts of your symptoms, your medical records, and the results of any consultative exams that you underwent (these are exams that the SSA pays for and sends you to.) If you have other physical or mental conditions that negatively affect your ability to work, the SSA will consider these in conjunction with your MS. In general, being older (especially if you’re over 55) with less education and a history of unskilled labor will increase the chances that you’ll qualify for disability under the med-voc guidelines. For more information, read Nolo's article on how Social Security decides claims based on the medical-vocational guidelines.

    Medical Evidence Required When Proving Disability Due to MS

    If you’re applying for Social Security disability benefits due to multiple sclerosis, there are several pieces of medical evidence that can be very important in getting your claim approved. First, your medical records will need to show a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. If any tests were done to obtain this diagnosis (such as an MRI, lumbar puncture, or nerve function study), it’s important that you provide these. If you suffer from MS-related muscle fatigue, the results of an evoked potentials or response test can also be helpful. You’ll also need to produce medical records that document how your MS affects you—such as doctor’s notes where you reported suffering from symptoms like fatigue or dizziness. Depending on how your specific symptoms, you may need to produce other test results or medical records.

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