Degenerative disc disease (DDD, sometimes known as spondylosis) is a term used to describe what happens when the intervertebral discs become dehydrated and shrink, a part of the natural aging process. Without the cushioning effect of the discs between the vertebrae, and sometimes in conjunction with deterioration from osteoarthritis, patients can suffer localized pain, inflammation, and back spasms in the area of disc degeneration. The pain is usually intermittent and is treated with pain medications, ice, and intermittent heat. Some patients suffering from DDD have trouble sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time, or lifting and bending, and this can make it difficult to work many jobs.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) gets many applications for disability based on degenerative disc disease, and most of them get denied, unless other physical or mental problems are alleged as well. Degenerative disc disease by itself is not recognized as a listed disability by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Why? For one reason, the pain caused by disc degeneration is usually intermittent, and often goes away after a few months of conservative treatment. (One requirement for Social Security disability benefits is that an impairment must be expected to last for 12 months.)
In addition, for back problems to automatically qualify for disability, the SSA requires that a person have severe issues such as needing assistance walking, needing to significantly adjust their position more than every two hours, or experiencing specific nerve-related problems. (DDD doesn't usually cause nerve-related problems like numbness and tingling, pain radiating down the buttocks and legs, muscle weakness, or loss of reflexes.) For more information on the SSA's requirements for back claims in general, see Nolo's article on getting disability benefits for back problems.
Degenerative disc disease does sometimes result in further back problems that are recognized by the SSA. For instance, as the space between the vertebrae gets smaller because of DDD, the spine becomes less stable, and the body sometimes reacts to this by creating bone spurs, which can put pressure on nearby nerves and result in nerve root compression. In addition, degenerative disc disease can make the discs more susceptible to herniation. If degenerative disc disease develops into one of the following more serious conditions, you have a better chance at getting disability benefits (the following conditions link to more disability articles):
If your degenerative disc disease has reduced your functional capacity—that is, your capacity to work—you might be able to qualify for disability benefits under what’s called a “medical-vocational allowance.” The SSA is required to evaluate your doctor’s notes on your functional limitations and restrictions, as well as your reports of pain, to determine if your disc problems limit you to medium or light work (this rating is called your residual functional capacity, or RFC). If your doctor has limited you to lifting 50 pounds or less occasionally, you'll receive a medium RFC. If you are limited to lifting 25 pounds or less, you'll receive a light RFC.
The SSA will then look at your age, education, and past experience to determine if there are jobs you can be expected to do with your medium or light RFC. But your chances of getting disability through a medical-vocational allowance are low unless you are over 50. For instance, if the SSA says you can do medium work, you won’t be considered disabled unless you’re older than 55, have less than a 6th grade education, and have limited skills—in most other cases, if you can do medium work, the SSA will presume that you can learn a new job. For more information on medical-vocational allowances for back probems, see our article on reduced functional capacity and back problems.