Disability Benefits for Spinal Stenosis

If you have severe pain in your back and legs and you can't walk effectively or stand for prolonged periods of time, you have a good chance of getting disability benefits.

By , Attorney Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 6/24/2024

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the space in the spinal canal. Stenosis can occur in both the cervical (neck) and/or lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine. The narrowing can lead to compression (squeezing) of the spinal cord and nerves, which, in turn, can lead to:

  • muscle weakness in the arms or legs
  • loss of deep tendon reflexes (DTR), and
  • numbness and pain in the back, buttocks, and legs.

Spinal stenosis often occurs as the result of another back problem, such as degenerative disc disease, nerve root compression from osteoarthritis, herniated discs, or scoliosis. Spinal stenosis can be caused by natural aging (the vertebral discs become drier and smaller as fluid dries up) or by a spinal injury causing nerve compression.

Many patients who suffer from stenosis are unable to work because of pain in their back and legs and their inability to walk without assistance or stand for prolonged periods of time. Fortunately, lumbar spinal stenosis is one of the few back conditions recognized by the Social Security Administration (SSA) with an official impairment listing, meaning that those with documented cases of severe lumbar spinal stenosis are automatically granted disability benefits—if you can meet the SSA's tough requirements.

Qualifying for Social Security Disability for Stenosis

To qualify for disability because of lumbar spinal stenosis under listing 1.16, you must show that you suffer from ALL of the following:

  • Non-radiating pain in one or both legs, or non-radiating loss of feeling in one or both legs, or neurogenic claudication (pain or cramping caused by nerve compression)
  • Neurological signs during physical examination or testing, specifically (1) muscle weakness, and (2) either sensory changes (such as decreased sensation, sensory nerve deficit, traumatic ulcers, or bladder or bowel incontinence) or decreased deep tendon reflexes in one or both legs
  • Imaging results or an operative (post-surgery) report showing stenosis in the cauda equina (the bundle of nerve roots at the lower end of the spinal cord)
  • Documented need for an assistive device that requires the use of both hands (walker, bilateral canes or crutches, wheelchair), or a device that requires the use of one hand (if you're unable to use the other hand for work-related activities).

The last requirement rules out all those who are living with great pain but who are able to walk and get places without assistance.

These requirements are not easy for someone without a medical background to understand; talk to your doctor to see if your conditions might meet these requirements.

Medical Evidence Required

Social Security will request your medical records from your doctors and clinics. Your records should include:

  • imaging (such as an X-ray or MRI) confirming a diagnosis of stenosis, and
  • a detailed physical exam, including testing your reflexes, sensation, muscle strength, muscle atrophy, and range of motion, as well as your ability to walk, bend, squat and rise.

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, and
  • what functional restrictions your doctor has placed on you (for example, no standing or walking for longer than two hours at a time).

Getting Benefits Without Meeting the Stenosis Listing

If you've been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, but you don't fulfill the four requirements above (say you are in great pain much of the time but have not resorted to the use of a walker), 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 (most people who suffer from lumbar stenosis are at least 50 years old). For more information on medical-vocational allowances, see our article on disability RFCs for back problems.

Applying for Social Security Disability Due to Spinal Stenosis

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 five years.

Also include both how your back pain affects your ability to work and your life outside of work. In addition, if you have both spinal stenosis and a mental impairment such as depression (as many people with back problems do), be sure to include symptoms and documentation of the mental impairment as well.

For more information, see our article on applying for SSDI benefits. If you'd like help with your application, think about working with an experienced disability attorney.

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