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Conditions that qualify for disability

Is Spinal Stenosis a Disability? How to Qualify for Benefits

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
April 8, 2024  ·  5 min read
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Atticus offers free, high-quality disability advice for Americans who can't work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and have helped over 10,000 Americans apply for disability benefits.

See if you qualify

If you have spinal stenosis, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits if your condition prevents you from being able to work. In 2022, more than 34 percent of Social Security recipients qualified for disability benefits due to diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue, which is how the Social Security Administration (SSA) categorizes spinal stenosis.

The process of applying and qualifying for disability benefits can be challenging. We’ll go through the SSA’s criteria for qualifying with spinal stenosis and offer guidance on next steps.  

Jump to:

  1. What is spinal stenosis?

  2. Is spinal stenosis a disability?

  3. Can you get disability for spinal stenosis?

  4. Criteria for getting disability with spinal stenosis

  5. My spinal stenosis meets the criteria. Now what?

  6. How much does disability pay for spinal stenosis?

  7. What if my spinal stenosis doesn’t meet the criteria?

What is spinal stenosis?

Spinal stenosis is a medical condition that occurs when the space around the spinal cord becomes too narrow. The narrowing of the spinal canal can put pressure on the spinal cord or the nerves that branch off of it, causing severe pain and numbness. Thickened ligaments, herniated discs, bone spurs, and spinal injuries can cause spinal stenosis. 

The condition is most common in people who are over the age of 50 and most often affects the lower back, known as lumbar spinal stenosis, or the neck, cervical spinal stenosis.

2 types of spinal stenosis

Spinal stenosis can happen in any part of your back, but the two most common areas and types of spinal stenosis are:

  • Cervical spinal stenosis: Cervical spinal stenosis occurs in the cervical spine, which is in the neck.

  • Lumbar spinal stenosis: This type of spinal stenosis occurs in the lower back, in the portion of the spine known as the lumbar spine.

Another rare form of spinal stenosis is thoracic spinal stenosis, which impacts the mid-back.

Common symptoms of spinal stenosis

People with spinal stenosis can experience chronic pain. The symptoms f the medical condition depend on which portion of the spinal canal is affected.

Lumbar spinal stenosis symptoms might include:

  • Lower back pain

  • Pain that radiates down the buttocks and into the legs and often gets worse when you stand or walk for periods of time

  • Weakness, numbness, tingling or cramping in the legs and feet

  • Limited lumbar spine range of motion

Symptoms of spinal stenosis in the neck might include:

  • Neck pain

  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling in the hand, arm, or fingers

  • Decreased function of your hands

Is spinal stenosis a disability?

Yes, spinal stenosis is a disability. The Social Security Administration recognizes lumbar spinal stenosis as an official listing in the SSA Blue Book, but severe cases of any type of stenosis may qualify for disability benefits. Lumbar spinal stenosis is categorized under musculoskeletal disorders in Section 1.16 with “Disorders of the Spine.”  

Additionally, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) considers spinal stenosis a disability if it is substantially limiting. This law passed in 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

We've helped 450 people with spinal stenosis apply for disability benefits.

Can you get disability for spinal stenosis?

Yes, you can receive Social Security disability benefits for spinal stenosis if you can prove your condition makes it impossible for you to work.

Even though you could qualify with just spinal stenosis, it's generally easier to get benefits if you have more than one qualifying condition. So, for instance, if you have one of the following conditions that's common alongside spinal stenosis, make sure to include that in your application for Social Security disability benefits:

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Bulging or herniated discs

  • Scoliosis or other spinal problems

  • Spinal fractures and injuries

  • Spinal cysts or tumors

You can learn more about these conditions and others for which you might receive Social Security disability in our main guide on conditions that qualify for disability.

Criteria for getting disability with spinal stenosis

For your spinal stenosis to qualify for disability, you'll need to prove to the SSA that you cannot work due to the severity of your symptoms. The eligibility requirements outlined in the SSA Blue Book apply to lumbar spinal stenosis, but any type of stenosis can qualify if it meets comparable criteria and prevents you from working. 

To be eligible for disability with lumbar spinal stenosis, the SSA stipulates that you must meet each of the following requirements:

1. You have symptoms of nerve issues stemming from your spinal stenosis that manifest as one of the following:

  • Non-radiating pain in one or both of the legs

  • Non-radiating sensory loss in one or both of the legs

  • Neurogenic claudication, which refers to leg pain or weakness caused by the nervous system as a result of spinal nerve compression

2. You've had a physical exam or diagnostic test, and non-radiating neurological signs were present. These signs were evidenced through:

  • Reduced muscle strength

  • Sensory changes, evident due to:

    • Decreased sensation

    • Sensory nerve deficit shown through electrodiagnostic testing

    • Absence of neurologic reflexes, trophic ulceration, or bladder or bowel incontinence

  • Reduced reflexes in the deep tendons of either one or both of the legs

3. You have findings documented in X-rays, CT scans, or an operative report demonstrating compromise of the cauda equina, the bundle of nerve roots at the base of the spinal cord.

4. You have physical limitations due to impairment in your musculoskeletal functioning that has lasted for at least 12 consecutive months. Additionally, you have documentation proving that one of the following is true:

  • You have a documented medical need to use a walker, bilateral canes, bilateral crutches, or a wheeled and seated mobility device involving both hands.

  • You are unable to use one arm to start, sustain, and finish work-related activities on your own that involve fine and gross movements. Additionally, you have a documented medical need for a one-handed, hand-held assistive device that requires using the other arm or a wheeled and seated mobility device involving one hand.

4 questions to ask yourself before applying

Before you commit to a long and often intensive application process, it's helpful to understand how likely you are to win benefits. Walking yourself through the following questions can help you gauge your chances — if you answer “yes” to most of the following questions, you're more likely to qualify for disability benefits:

  1. Do you experience pain, sensory changes, or weakness in your upper or lower extremities as a result of your spinal stenosis?

  2. Do you have medical records with results from a physical exam, diagnostic testing, imaging, or an operation that demonstrate the impacts of your spinal stenosis?

  3. Does your spinal stenosis require you to use assisted devices, such as a cane, walker, crutches, or braces?

  4. Does your condition make starting, sustaining, and completing work involving fine or gross motor function difficult?

My spinal stenosis meets the criteria. Now what?

If your spinal stenosis meets SSA requirements, the next step is to apply for disability benefits. Start the application process as soon as possible, as it often takes a while.

Need clarification on whether your spinal stenosis meets the criteria? You may find the following helpful in making your decision on what steps to take next:

  • Apply now if:

    • Your spinal stenosis symptoms make it impossible for you to work and persist even with treatment.

    • You have medical evidence of your spinal stenosis and have undergone testing or imaging showing the symptoms.

    • You have another qualifying health condition.

  • Consider waiting and applying later if:

    • Your symptoms are moderate or seem like they're improving with treatment.

    • You're able to manage your spinal stenosis well enough to work, even if you think you may no longer be able to in the future.

  • Probably don’t apply if:

    • You make over $1,550 per month, the upper limit for income as of 2024

    • You're still able to work despite your spinal stenosis

What type of benefits should I apply for?

There are two different types of disability benefits you could receive for spinal stenosis: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Whether you're helping a loved one apply for disability benefits or applying on your own behalf, it's important to understand the differences between these two types of benefits. While both programs include health insurance (Medicare for SSDI and Medicaid for SSI), they are targeted toward different populations:

  • SSDI is for people who have worked and paid taxes for at least five out of the last 10 years.

  • SSI is for people who haven't worked much or at all and who have low income (roughly $900 or less per month) and few assets like savings and other valuable property.

For a more in-depth exploration of these two programs, this article breaks down the differences between SSDI and SSI.

How much does disability pay for spinal stenosis?

The average disability check for spinal stenosis is $1,557.95. That's just the average, though — you could receive more or less than that each month. As of 2024, the maximum amount you can make for spinal stenosis is $3,822 per month for SSDI and $943 per month for SSI.

These upper limits will apply regardless of which condition qualifies you for benefits or how many conditions you use to qualify for benefits. The amount you receive each month is based on other individual factors. How SSI is calculated is based on your other sources of income, whereas SSDI depends on your work history.

For a better understanding of your potential monthly income on disability for spinal stenosis, check out our article on how much people make on SSDI and SSI.

SSDI amounts

What if my spinal stenosis doesn’t meet the criteria?

If your spinal stenosis doesn't meet SSA criteria, you can still apply. Just keep in mind that you will need to prove that you are unable to work because of your spinal stenosis to qualify for benefits.

Keep at it if things don't immediately go your way, even if your spinal stenosis seemingly ticks off SSA requirements. It's common to get turned down on your first application attempt — an estimated 80% of applicants are. If you're persistent and appeal your initial denial, your chances of winning an appeal are much higher.

As you navigate the long and often arduous process of applying for disability benefits, remember where you can turn for financial or legal assistance. Be sure to take a look at the resources for people with disabilities that Atticus has compiled.

Get help with your disability claim

Take our 2-minute quiz to see if your spinal stenosis might qualify for benefits, and give us a call to get a free consultation on your disability claim. Atticus can introduce you to a disability attorney, if you’d like. 

Working with a disability lawyer eases the application process and increases your chances of winning by three times. There are no upfront costs—you only pay your lawyer if they win you benefits.

Ready to get benefits today?

Related resources:

How Osteoarthritis Can Qualify You for Disability Benefits

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By Jackie Jakab

Disability for Back Pain: How to Qualify and Apply for SSDI

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By Jackie Jakab

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Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney

Jackie Jakab

Lead Attorney

Jackie Jakab is Atticus’s Legal Director. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, and has counseled thousands of people seeking disability benefits.
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