Social Security Disability and Chronic Pain

Many applicants assert chronic pain as a disabling condition. Social Security uses a five step process to determine if chronic pain qualifies an applicant for benefits.

  1. Is the applicant engaging in substantial gainful activity according to the SSA definition? If applicant earns more than $1,040 a month, they will be disqualified from receiving benefits.
  2. Is the chronic pain disability severe enough to significantly limit the applicant’s ability to perform basic work activities needed to do most jobs? Examples include walking/standing/sitting/lifting/pushing/pulling/reaching, seeing/hearing/speaking, understanding/remembering simple instructions, responding appropriately to co-workers and supervision, and dealing with changes in a work setting.
  3. Does the applicant have a medically determinable condition that would cause chronic pain? If so, SSA will next look at the following: location/duration/frequency/intensity of the pain; factors that aggravate the pain; type/dosage/effectiveness/side effects of any medication taken to alleviate the pain; treatment received for pain relief; any other factors concerning functional limitations and restrictions due to pain (or other symptoms).
  4. Can the applicant perform any work they have done in the past despite their chronic pain? If the person cannot perform any past work; SSA then proceeds to the final step.
  5. Based on the applicant’s age, education, work experience and physical/mental impairments, are there any other jobs the applicant can perform? If not, the applicant will be award disability benefits.

Advice for Advocates

Ask the applicant what activities cause or worsen the pain, what have they tried to the relieve the pain, how often does the pain occur, and what impact does the pain have on their activities of daily living. Keeping a pain log is very helpful too.