Chronic pain is ongoing or recurrent pain that continues longer than the usual course of acute illness or injury, or more than three to six months. Chronic pain may manifest in any area – including lumbar, knee, ankle, hip, and cervix.

Chronic pain is not a listed impairment in Social Security’s blue book, the listing of impairments that may automatically qualify you for disability benefits. However, there are some diagnoses that are often related to chronic pain.

Qualify for Benefits

In an RFC assessment, disability claims examiners assess your physical and mental limitations to determine whether your disability limits you so much that you can’t work full-time. Unfortunately, the claims examiners at Disability Determination Services often give a short shrift to pain. One reason for this is that a disability applicant’s complaints of pain are subjective and hard to prove. And doctors who actually treat disability applicants commonly do a poor job of referencing their patients’ levels of pain in their treatment notes and inferring what the resulting effects might be on the patient’s ability to engage in normal daily activities.

However, federal court cases have held that Social Security must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of your pain symptoms on your ability to do basic work activities. The following factors should be considered:

  • The location, duration, frequency, and intensity of your pain
  • How pain affects your daily activities
  • Factors that precipitate and aggravate your pain
  • The type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of medication taken to alleviate pain
  • Other treatments used to relieve symptoms, such as acupuncture or physical therapy
  • Other ways you relieve pain, such as lying down or applying ice

Your doctor should include information on the above factors in his notes so that they appear in your medical record. In addition, Social Security will want to know your doctor’s opinion on the functional limitations you have that are caused by your pain and how long your chronic pain is expected to limit your ability to function.

How the Mental Effects of Chronic Pain Limit Your Ability to Work

Don’t forget to consider the mental and emotional effects of chronic pain. Including information about how your pain affects your mental capabilities may be very important to establish disability through the RFC assessment. (If Social Security finds that the physical effects of your pain limit you to sedentary work, there will still be plenty of jobs you can do unless you can show that you don’t have the mental capacity for sedentary work.)

Mental effects of chronic pain often include difficulties with concentration and memory. It can be hard to learn and retain new information when you are distracted by pain. Chronic pain may also make you impatient and irritable, making it difficult to get along with supervisors and coworkers.


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