Every month we take a deep dive into a specific disability condition. Here’s everything you need to know about degenerative disc disease:
What is it?
Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is actually a misnomer since it isn’t a disease at all. It’s simply the normal aging process of the spine. Between each of your vertebrae, you have soft discs of cartilage that act as shock absorbers and allow you to bend and twist freely. When these discs wear down and lose fluid over time, there’s less padding between your vertebrae, which can put pressure on your spinal cord and nerves. Everyone experiences disc degeneration over time, but people who smoke, do intense amounts of physical labor, or are obese are much more likely to develop DDD.
What are the symptoms?
This condition has a wide spectrum of severity, but the most common symptoms are pain in the neck and lower back. In more severe cases DDD can cause loss of mobility or even numbness from compromised nerve function.
What is the SSA looking for?
- At least 12 months of clinical records on your condition.
- Physician treatment notes indicating DDD, lumbar problems, spinal stenosis, or degenerative joint disease (DJD).
- Objective evidence of disc deterioration (i.e., x-rays, CAT scans, MRI studies).
- Any positive clinical evidence of nerve root compression (i.e., a positive straight-leg test).
- Any clinical evidence of arachnoiditis (i.e., imaging results that show swelling of the nerve root).
- Any clinical evidence of stenosis (i.e., an MRI showing narrowing of the spinal column).
- Evidence that your DDD severely limits your ability to walk, your spinal range of motion, and the amount of time you can sit or stand. Generally the standard is less than two hours.
How can I improve my chances of being approved for disability benefits?
If you’ve been diagnosed with DDD and you’re experiencing enough pain and loss of mobility that you can’t work, you should definitely apply for disability. However be aware that DDD and back pain are the most common conditions the SSA sees. This means that DDD is not an easy disability to get approved, especially for people younger than 50 years old.
But don’t despair! There are many things you can do to help out your case:
1. See your doctor at least once every two months—Regular medical treatment is the key to getting your case approved. Even if you have a strong medical history, your SSA disability examiner will have a very hard time getting you approved if you haven’t talked to your doctor in the past two months.
2. Stick with one doctor—Seeing one doctor frequently will help your case so much more than seeing multiple doctors infrequently. So find a doctor you like and make sure they’re following your case closely. Also be sure that your physician is either a medical doctor (M.D.) or an osteopath (D.O.). The SSA will not accept diagnosis and treatment from a chiropractor as evidence of DDD.
3. Talk to your doctor about your physical limitations—Another upside of sticking with one doctor is being able to open up to them and explain the particulars of your case. Back pain conditions are often difficult to get approved because they’re mostly based on the pain you’re feeling, so be sure to open up to your doctor and let her know how severe and how chronic your pain is.
4. Verbalize your difficulties with bending, stooping, and crouching—These are the three primary exertional limitations that disability examiners are looking for in DDD cases. So make sure you mention them to your doctor. If you explain your difficulty with tasks that involve bending, stooping, and crouching, chances are these difficulties will end up in your medical notes.
5. Gather at least 12 months of clinical records—Back pain conditions like DDD are known for improving with time, so you’ll need as much evidence as possible that yours is a long-term condition. Work with your doctor to pull all of these records together.
6. Make sure you have imaging results—Quality of your medical records is going to be very important in your case, and one of the only ways to prove that your DDD is debilitating is to include imaging tests: MRIs, CT scans, and x-rays of your back. Blood work or clinical notes from licensed physicians, orthopedists, or neurologists will also be helpful.
7. Do a straight-leg test with your doctor—Testing positively on this test while sitting and lying down is a major indicator that your case deserves to be approved. And it’s a very simple test. All you have to do is lift up a straight leg 30 to 70 degrees and tell your doctor when you feel pain in your back.
8. Keep your family and friends in the loop—Disability examiners often call friends and family members of claimants to ask questions about their daily activities. So when you’re in the application process make sure that those close to you know the details of what you can and can’t do. If they know, they’ll be able to share helpful insights with your examiner.
9. Find a disability attorney to represent you—This is a good idea no matter what your condition is, but DDD claimants in particular need extra support to navigate the approval process successfully. Plus working with an attorney that specializes in disability law greatly increases your chances of being approved on your first try.