Degenerative disc disease is one of the most likely causes of low back pain, affecting approximately 65 million Americans a year. However, it is also one of the most misunderstood conditions and often people are left unsure on what the diagnosis actually means. Much of the confusion centers around the idea that because it’s called “degenerative,” the condition will progress and get worse over time. But actually, while disc degeneration is likely to progress over time, the resulting lower back pain usually gets better over time. Disc degeneration is a natural part of aging so everyone will have changes in their discs; however, not all people will develop symptoms because degenerative disc disease is quite variable in its severity. Therefore, when assessing an alleged back condition, Social Security Administration looks for certain markers that indicate an individual’s condition is truly disabling. This article will explore these markers and provide tips on how to strengthen a disability case which involves degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.
What Social Security is Looking For
MRI’s are a great way to prove the severity of a disc disease. Most doctors will order this imaging test when a patient consistently complains of low back pain. The MRI offers a more detailed image of the spine than an x-ray, and can tell the doctor how much degeneration exists and whether the disease is affecting a nerve or the spinal cord. A procedure that offers an even more detailed image of the spine is called a discography. A patient’s disc is injected with a special contrast dye which outlines the damaged areas on x-rays taken following the injection. This procedure is often suggested for patients who are considering lumbar surgery.
After a patient undergoes an MRI imaging exam, a one to two page report is generated. On the bottom of this report, a doctor who has analyzed the MRI lists the diagnoses in the “impressions” section. Words like “mild, moderate, or severe” are used to describe the severity of the disease. Social Security often looks for moderate to severe degeneration described on the imaging study. Additionally, Social Security looks for nerve root or spinal cord implication. When a disc is displaced or degenerating to a significant degree, it may “abut, efface, irritate or compress” a nerve root or cord. When a nerve is involved, there is significant pain not only in the lower back, but radiating pain down one or both legs. Lastly, Social Security looks for how the disc disease affects an individual’s ability to ambulate. Specifically, the Administration checks to see if the disease results in “ineffective ambulation,” which is defined by an inability to walk without the use of 2 canes, crutches or a walker.
Though not all the markers need to be present to win a Social Security case, having these markers makes the case strong because the medical evidence points to a severely disabling condition. An individual with an MRI showing severe degeneration of disc L4-5, with nerve root compression and a prescribed walker will probably meet one of Social Security’s Listings, resulting in an automatic win. However, an individual with a mild degeneration at L4-5, no nerve root or spinal cord implication, and no assistive devices for ambulation will have a more difficult time proving their disability.
What Various Types of Medical Treatment Says About Your Case
Other than tests, Social Security looks for medical treatment. Much in the way of treatment can be offered to individuals suffering from low back pain. Medications are the most common form of treatment, but they can range from over the counter pain relievers to serious narcotic pain management medications such as vicodin, morphine and valium. The stronger medications suggest more severe, unmanageable pain conditions and they are likely to cause debilitating side effects.
Other forms of treatment are physical therapy, pain injections, TENS units and pain patches. These conservative treatments are often exhausted before more invasive procedures are considered. Social Security looks to see if conservative medical management has been tried and inevitably failed to provide relief from the pain. If an individual has found total relief from pain after using medications and undergoing physical therapy, their condition is no longer disabling. However, if despite medications, physical therapy trials and pain injections, an individual’s pain persists, then the case appears much stronger.
A doctor’s recommendation for surgery on the spine reflects a serious condition. Although an individual’s choice to follow through with surgery or not does not effect a disability determination, the fact that it’s even recommended shows that the condition is very serious.
Multiple failed surgeries or other invasive procedures such as surgically inserted pain stimulators, tend to show that the condition is very severe and has probably totally disabled the individual.
What You Can Do to Strengthen Your Case
Though the presence or absence of the markers mentioned above are beyond an individual’s control, there are certain things that claimants can personally do to strengthen their case. Social Security looks for consistent pain complaints in order to assess the validity of a disability claim. An individual who never complains about back pain to their doctor, but then alleges it is preventing him/her from working will not be found very credible. Therefore, if your condition causes severe pain, be sure to see your doctor regularly and check that progress notes are being taken which reflect your pain complaints. Also, doctors can perform certain tests on their patients other than medical imaging which can help determine how severe a low back condition is. For example, a straight leg-raising test can be performed on a patient to determine whether there is disc herniation. Additionally, testing can be performed on range of motion to check how much a patient can bend and move. Muscle strength tests will show whether the disease is causing weakness. Atrophy can be tested to check if the back condition is causing muscle wasting and foot drop. Gait tests can tell how the disease affects a patient’s ability to walk and stand. Make sure you explore these testing procedures with your doctor so that a supportive medical record will be available for Social Security to review.