Disability Benefits for Nerve Root Compression

Social Security recognizes that severe nerve root compression caused by arthritis, herniated discs, or vertebral fractures can be debilitating.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law

Compression of the nerve roots in the spinal cord results in a great deal of pain, and can also cause sensory loss, tingling, loss of motion, decreased reflexes, and muscle weakness. Patients who suffer from nerve root compression can find it difficult to sit or stand in one position for long, to walk without pain, and to bend over or lift heavy items. Those with severe spinal nerve root compression problems often are unable to work.

Qualifying for Disability Due to Spinal Nerve Root Compression

The Social Security Administration (SSA) recognizes that severe nerve root compression can be debilitating, and as a result, the agency has created an official impairment listing in its "Blue Book" of impairments. If your condition matches the requirements in this listing, you can get Social Security disability benefits.

To qualify under listing 1.15 for "disorders of the skeletal spine resulting in compromise of a nerve root," you must show that you suffer from ALL of the following:

  • Radiating pain, paresthesia (prickling or "pins and needles" type sensation), or muscle fatigue consistent with compromise of the affected nerve root
  • Signs that your nerves are affected, specifically (1) muscle weakness; (2) signs of nerve root irritation, tension, or compression; and (3) either sensory changes (such as decreased sensation or sensory nerve deficit on electrodiagnostic testing) or decreased deep tendon reflexes
  • Findings on imaging (MRI or CT scan) consistent with compromise of a nerve root in the neck or lower back, AND
  • One of the following physical limitations:
    • needing an assistive device that requires 1) the use of both hands (walker, bilateral canes or crutches, or wheelchair), or 2) the use of one hand, but you're unable to use the other hand for work-related activities, or
    • the inability to use both hands for work-related activities.

In addition, your nerve root compression problems must have lasted, or be expected to last, 12 months or more.

What Underlying Back Conditions Cause Nerve Root Compression?

Social Security notes several examples of back conditions that can cause nerve compression:

  • herniated disc (technically known as herniated nucleus pulposis, or HNP)
  • osteoarthritis (degenerative arthritis)
  • degenerative disc disease
  • facet arthritis, and
  • vertebral fracture.

There may be other back problems that lead to nerve root compression that the SSA doesn't list. Social Security can award benefits for nerve root compression caused by other conditions as well, if the condition meets the requirements above.

Medical Evidence Required

Social Security will request your medical records from your doctors and any clinics you've visited. Your records should include imaging confirming a diagnosis of nerve root compression and notes from a detailed physical exam, including testing your:

  • reflexes
  • sensation
  • muscle strength
  • muscle atrophy, range of motion
  • ability to walk
  • ability to bend, and
  • ability to squat and rise.

If your compromised nerve root is in the lumbar spine, Social Security will also want to see the results of a positive "straight-leg raising test" (also known as a "Lasègue test").

Your records should also include the various treatments you have tried, such as pain medication, physical therapy, or steroid injections, as well as the side effects of the pain medication. You should ask your doctor to record how your pain, medication side effects, and other symptoms limit your ability to work. Your records should also include what functional restrictions your doctor has placed on you (for example, no standing or walking for longer than two hours at a time).

Getting Disability Benefits Without Meeting the Listing

If you've been diagnosed with nerve root compression but you don't fulfill the listing requirements above, you may still be able to qualify for disability benefits under what's called a "medical-vocational allowance," particularly if you are 55 years or older. For more information on medical-vocational allowances, see our article on disability RFCs for back problems.

Applying for Disability Benefits Due to Nerve Root Compression

You can apply for Social Security disability in person at your local SSA office, by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213, or online at www.ssa.gov. To complete the disability application, you'll need detailed information, including the contact information and dates of treatment for all of your medical providers, the dates of any medical tests, and the names, addresses, and dates of employment for all of your employers in the last 15 years.

For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.

If you'd like help with your application, think about working with a legal professional. Click for a free case evaluation with an SSDI expert to determine whether your spinal condition is severe enough to qualify for benefits.

Updated January 17, 2022

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