Getting Disability for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

If your IBS causes severe abdominal pain and the need for bathroom breaks such that your productivity is reduced by 20%, you are likely to win disability benefits.

By , J.D., University of Baltimore School of Law

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic disease of the intestines that causes abdominal pain and bloating, cramping, gas, constipation, and diarrhea. In patients with IBS, the intestinal tract squeezes more strongly and for longer as it moves food through the digestive tract. Often, a patient suffers with alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation.

The exact cause is of IBS is unknown. Some research suggests that people who suffer from IBS have abnormal levels of serotonin in the brain. IBS may also be caused by abnormalities in the brain and nervous system that cause a person to feel more pain as stool and gas pass through the intestinal track.

Can I Qualify for Disability Because I Have IBS?

Although difficult, it may be possible to win a claim based on IBS alone. If you are making less than about $1,500 per month, your condition is severe, and your IBS has lasted, or is expected to last, at least a year, the SSA will review your case to see if you qualify for disability. But proving your condition will last or has lasted a year can be difficult for IBS sufferers to prove as the symptoms of IBS often come and go. The SSA defines a "severe" impairment as one that significantly impacts your ability to perform basic work activities like walking, sitting, standing, following directions, getting along with co-workers, and so on.

Unfortunately, IBS is not currently a qualified condition included in the SSA's Listing of Impairments; however, this does not mean you can't be found disabled. It does mean that it will be harder to prove your case, and it will take longer.

Can You Do Your Past Work?

The SSA will decide whether your IBS prevents you from performing your past work. To make this determination, the SSA looks at the objective medical evidence you have provided from your treating doctors, information provided by any exams performed by the SSA's doctors, and your own testimony. The SSA will give you an RFC (residual functional capacity) rating based on this information, which states whether you can do sedentary work, light work, or medium work. If the SSA concludes that you can do your past work with your RFC rating, your claim will be denied.

Can You Do Other Work?

If the SSA finds that because of your IBS, you cannot perform your past work, the SSA will next decide whether there is any other work you are able to perform.

For example, if your IBS causes you frequent and uncontrollable urges to have a bowel movement, you would need a job where you are allowed frequent and unscheduled bathroom breaks. This limitation would severely limit the number of jobs available to you. The SSA must also consider how IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain, cramps, and bowel incontinence affect your ability to perform your work at a commonly acceptable rate and whether your IBS will cause you to miss a large amount of work. If the SSA finds that your productivity is reduced by at least 20% because of your IBS, you will most likely win your claim because you would be unlikely to be able to keep a job.

In this last step, Social Security also takes into account your age, education, past work experience and RFC level. It is often easier for older, less educated applicants to win approval at this stage because of the "grid rules."

What Medical Evidence Do I Need to Qualify for Disability?

The SSA will consider medical evidence only from licensed physicians (including osteopaths) and psychologists. The medical evidence you provide to the SSA should come from the doctor who regularly treats you for your IBS. And though the SSA will consider evidence from a licensed general practitioner or your family doctor, it gives more weight to opinions and diagnosis that come from doctors who specialize in IBS, such as gastroenterologists.

Medical evidence from your treating physician should include lab results, x-ray or other imaging results, and consultation notes. It is important that your records include your physician's opinion about your work restrictions, specifically, how long you can sit, stand, or walk; how much you can push, pull, and lift; and whether you require rest periods throughout the day.

If the SSA needs more information about your illness, it may send you to a doctor hired by the SSA for what's called a "consultative examination" (CE). Sometimes the CE is performed by the doctor who ordinarily treats you, but it may also be performed by another qualified physician.

What Other Evidence Could Help My Case?

The SSA must also consider the side effects of medication on your ability to work, so it is important to document and report negative side effects to your doctor and to the SSA.

In addition, people with IBS often suffer from other illnesses like depression and anxiety. It is important to let the SSA know about all the illnesses you receive treatment for because the SSA must consider the combined effect of all impairments, even those it determines are not severe.

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