Social Security Disability Benefits for Degenerative Disc Disease

If your DDD results in work restrictions that rule out all jobs, you can qualify for disability benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Degenerative disc disease (sometimes referred to as intervertebral disc disorder) is a medical term used to describe what happens when intervertebral discs—the soft cushions between the bones of the spine, or vertebrae—become dehydrated and shrink, a part of the natural aging process. Loss of cushioning between the vertebrae can cause the bones to rub against each other or touch nerves in the spinal cord, resulting in pain.

When Is Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) Considered a Disability?

Social Security receives many applications for disability benefits based on degenerative disc disease. Usually these applications contain medical evidence of additional spinal disorders related to or comorbid with (occuring at the same time as) DDD, such as:

  • endplate sclerosis (hardening of the "shell" tissue surrounding the disc)
  • retrolisthesis (when a vertebra has slipped behind a disc)
  • multilevel spondylosis (degeneration of several vertebrae along the lumbar, thoracic, or cervical areas of the spine), and
  • herniated discs.

Because degenerative disc disease worsens with time, even initially mild cases of DDD can eventually cause the above back problems to develop. For example, as the space between the vertebrae gets smaller, your body may react to increasing spinal instability by creating bone spurs that can compress nearby nerves. DDD can also result in spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that can impede nerve signals to your arms and legs. If you have significant, long-lasting work restrictions from your degenerative disc disease, you may qualify for disability.

Qualifying for Disability Due to Degenerative Disc Disease

Every applicant for disability needs to satisfy certain preliminary criteria before the Social Security Administration (SSA) can award benefits. First, you'll need to show that you're legally eligible to receive benefits, whether through the needs-based Supplemental Security Income program or under Social Security Disability Insurance coverage.

You'll then have to show that your disorder has kept you from working above what the SSA considers substantial gainful activity—around $1,550 per month—for at least twelve months. The agency doesn't award short-term or temporary benefits, so if your degenerative disc disease is successfully treated and your back pain goes away within one year, you won't be able to get benefits.

Once your eligibility for benefits is confirmed, the SSA will review your medical records for evidence that you're disabled. You can be found disabled in one of two ways—by meeting the requirements of a listed impairment or by having work restrictions that rule out all jobs.

Getting Disability for Degenerative Disc Disease by Meeting a Spine Disorder Listing

Listed impairments are conditions that Social Security considers automatically disabling, provided you have specific medical evidence establishing significant functional limitations. If you have symptoms from DDD that greatly reduce your mobility—such as being unable to walk without crutches—you may meet the requirements of medical listing 1.15, Disorders of the skeletal spine resulting in compromise of a nerve root.

Under listing 1.15, you'll qualify for disability if you have medical documentation of the following:

  • symptoms of pain, numbness, or fatigue
  • examinations or diagnostic tests showing muscle weakness and nerve irritation, along with evidence of poor sensory responses or reflexes
  • medical imaging (such as an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan) showing disc degeneration that's affecting a nerve, and
  • an inability to walk without assistance, perform fine and gross motor skills with your upper extremities (arms and hands) for motor skills, or a combination of both.

Qualifying for disability by meeting this listing can be challenging because it requires you to be very limited in what you can do. You won't qualify under 1.15 if you don't need an assistive device to move around, for example. But you can still get benefits without meeting the listing if you can show that you're unable to perform your past jobs or any less physically demanding work.

Getting Disability for Degenerative Disc Disease with Restrictions That Rule Out All Work

Many people with degenerative disc disease have limitations that aren't severe enough to meet the listing requirements, but still interfere significantly with their ability to do work-related activities. If restrictions from your DDD keep you from performing any jobs, you could qualify for disability benefits under a medical-vocational allowance.

Social Security will review your medical records and daily activities to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a reflection of your maximum capabilities in a work environment. People with degenerative disc disease almost always have physical restrictions in their RFC, such as being unable to lift more than a certain amount of weight or needing to sit down for most of the workday. Because pain can affect your concentration, mental limitations—such as the highest skill level of work you can perform—are often included as well.

Social Security will compare your current RFC with the demands of your past jobs. If you can't return to your old work, the agency will then need to determine whether you're able to do any other jobs despite the limitations in your RFC. At this point, factors such as your age, education, and employment history come into play. For example, most applicants younger than 50 will need to show that they can't do the simplest sit-down jobs in order to get disability, while applicants 50 years of age or older may qualify under the "grid rules."

Applying for Disability for Degenerative Disc Disease

Starting your application for disability benefits is a pretty straightforward process. You can choose which of the following methods works best for you.

  • File online at if you're applying for SSDI benefits. (If you're applying for SSI benefits, you can begin your application online, but a Social Security representative will contact you to finish it.)
  • Call the Social Security hotline at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778 for people who are deaf or hard of hearing) between 8:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.
  • Go in person to your local Social Security field office.

You don't need to have a lawyer at any point during your disability determination, but having a representative can make the process go a lot smoother. If you're on the fence about getting help from an attorney, check out our article on what to look for in a good disability lawyer. For more information about how the SSA handles applications for spinal disorders in general, see our article on getting disability benefits for back problems.

Updated March 12, 2024

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