Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic disease that can affect vision, movement, and concentration. It affects more women than men and is most frequently diagnosed in people between the ages of 20 and 40 years old.
MS is an unpredictable disorder that varies from person to person. Some people have a mild form that doesn't significantly interfere with their lives, while others have severe symptoms that greatly restrict their daily activities. If symptoms from your MS prevent you from working full-time for at least twelve months, you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.
Your body's immune system is an important defense against germs, bacteria, and viruses. MS occurs when your immune system begins attacking a protective sheath (known as myelin) that covers your nerve fibers and disrupts how your nerves communicate with the rest of your body.
While not every person diagnosed with MS will have the same type, severity, or duration of symptoms, the disorder often affects movement. The more common symptoms include:
Although a neurological examination can identify symptoms that may indicate the presence of multiple sclerosis, there is no conclusive test that diagnoses MS. Generally, your doctor will diagnose MS after ruling out other, similar conditions (a "differential diagnosis").
Neurologists classify multiple sclerosis into four different types:
Unfortunately, there's currently 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. Lifestyle changes, like avoiding stress and maintaining an exercise program, can also be beneficial.
Depending on how severe your MS symptoms are, you may qualify for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Some people with MS have mild symptoms that don't pose any significant obstacles to work, while others have more limitations that rule out all jobs. People with very advanced MS might qualify for disability automatically under the SSA's Blue Book listing for multiple sclerosis.
Social Security awards disability benefits to people who have a medical condition that prevents them from working at the level of substantial gainful activity for at least twelve months. You'll also need to meet the financial eligibility requirements for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
When you apply for disability benefits, the SSA will, with your permission, obtain records from the medical providers who treat you for your MS. Claims examiners for the SSA will be on the lookout for documentation of your MS symptoms as well information on how those symptoms limit you. Examples include:
Your medical records are the foundation of your disability claim, so make sure that you keep the SSA in the loop about any new treatment you receive for your MS. Social Security needs to see that your records are timely, accurate, and sufficient before the agency can use them as the basis to find you disabled.
The SSA maintains a "Listing of Impairments" (also known as the Blue Book) that provides specific criteria for certain conditions that, if documented in your medical records, automatically qualify you for disability. The requirements for multiple sclerosis are described under listing 11.09.
You can meet these requirements in two ways:
Children can also qualify for SSI benefits under a similar listing for MS, but only in very limited circumstances (such as when they can't move independently).
Most Social Security applicants ("claimants") with MS aren't so limited that they meet the strict requirements of the listing criteria, but that doesn't mean that they're not disabled. You can qualify for disability without meeting a listing if you can show that no jobs exist that you can perform according to the medical-vocational guidelines.
The medical-vocational guidelines are a set of rules that helps the SSA determine your ability to work based on your age, education, past work history, and what the agency refers to as your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a list of restrictions that reflect the most you're capable of doing, physically and mentally, in a work setting.
A typical RFC for a claimant with MS can include the following restrictions:
The SSA will determine your RFC by consulting a medical expert, reviewing your doctors' notes, and looking at the result of any consultative examinations you attended. If you have other physical or mental conditions that affect your ability to work, the agency will consider any limitations from these impairments, along with your MS, when determining your RFC.
If your RFC rules out your past work, Social Security will need to find out whether any other jobs exist that you can do with your restrictions. In general, being older—especially if you're over 55—with less education and a history of unskilled labor increases the chances that you'll qualify for disability. For more information, read about how Social Security decides claims based on the medical-vocational guidelines.
Because MS symptoms can vary so widely between claimants, without the help of an experienced disability attorney or advocate, it can be difficult to know what your chances are at qualifying for benefits. Consider getting a lawyer to help you with your MS claim. Your lawyer can ease the stress of gathering your medical records for submission to Social Security, and can represent you in front of an administrative law judge at a disability hearing.
You can find disability lawyers near you using our attorney locator tool here.
Updated November 21, 2022