Social Security Disability and Traumatic Brain Injuries

The U.S. Government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) as a serious health concern, citing data showing that approximately 1.7 million people sustain a traumatic brain injury each year. TBI is caused by an impact to, or penetration of, the head. This impact or penetration will often cause brain dysfunction. The severity of the injury varies. Some individuals may have mild symptoms, such as brief moments of unconsciousness, while others may experience more severe symptoms such as prolonged unconsciousness or amnesia. The vast majority of TBIs each year result in only mild symptoms.

As with all impairments, Social Security will evaluate how the symptoms of TBI will affect your ability to sustain full-time work. Social Security concedes that there are different manifestations of TBI, and that recovery rates and long-term outcomes will vary. SSA notes that, while in some cases the symptoms of a TBI are immediately apparent, in other cases “the actual severity of a mental impairment may not become apparent until 6 months post-injury.”

For this reason, Social Security uses tiered approaches to determine whether an individual who has suffered a TBI is able to work. SSA will first evaluate the individual 3 months after the injury. If no finding of disability is possible at that time, SSA will defer adjudication of the claim until 6 months after the injury, when they evaluate the individual again.

Social Security will evaluate TBIs much in the same way that they evaluate epilepsy and central nervous system accidents. In such cases, Social Security will look to the type, duration, and frequency of any seizures that TBI individuals may experience, and any residual effects of these seizures when they are concluded. Alternatively, Social Security will consider a TBI injury using the same criteria as when they evaluate central nervous system accidents, such as whether the individual suffers from sensory or motor dysfunction as a result of the TBI.

Even if the disability claimant does not meet these criteria, Social Security will ask other general questions about the individual’s ability to work. For TBI cases, such questions may include the effects of the TBI on the individual’s ability to concentrate and maintain attention for meaningful periods, his/her ability to be oriented to time and place, whether he/she suffers from delusions, whether he/she experienced a loss of intellectual ability following the TBI, and whether the individual cycles through mood swings or changes in personality. As in all Social Security disability cases, questions about the individual’s functionality in the tasks of daily living and his/her ability to interact appropriately with supervisors, co-workers, family, and the general public.