Back Pain, Disc Disease, and Disability Determinations

In any claim for disability benefits where the medical impairment alleged is back pain, disc disease, or other spinal conditions, objective medical evidence is extremely important. Objective medical evidence in back pain claims includes x-rays, CT scans, and especially MRIs. Social Security judges will often place inordinate importance on the results of these tests rather than on the claimant’s subjective descriptions of the ailments.

Notwithstanding the importance of the objective medical tests, other factors will influence the lens through which a Social Security judge will evaluate disability based on back ailments. Judges will look at the claimant’s entire medical record, mostly to see whether the claimant’s complaints have been consistent over time, whether they report different symptoms or limitations to different doctors, or whether they report engaging in activities that are inconsistent with those of an individual struggling with back problems. For instance, if a claimant alleges disability due to back problems, but his medical records indicate that he goes fishing or repairs cars on the weekend, that claimant’s allegations of disabling back pain are likely to be viewed with skepticism. The inconsistency need not be so stark: back disorders would also prevent individuals from frequently lifting small children, driving or flying long distances, or from performing yard work.

Obesity also has bearing on the evaluation of back problems in disability determinations. Social Security regulations have made clear that morbid obesity combined with musculoskeletal impairments can have effects that are greater than those of either impairment alone. This means that, generally, the more obese a claimant is, the more pronounced their back impairments are likely to be.

The factors that are mostly likely to be influential to Social Security judges evaluating claims based on back pain (besides objective tests such as MRIs and x-rays) include: the claimant’s daily activities; the location and frequency of the pain; the duration of the pain; the type and side-effects of any prescribed medications; whether the claimant has been prescribed a cane or other assisted walking device; and any measures that the claimant takes throughout the day to relieve the pain.