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How to Describe Pain to a Disability Judge: 4 Tips for Hearings

Written by
Jackie Jakab, Disability Attorney
Jackie Jakab
Lead Attorney
January 12, 2024  ·  2 min read
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Describing your pain to a judge at a disability hearing can be nerve-racking. However, it is important to communicate your symptoms and how your condition affects your life. The better the administrative law judge understands your condition and how it impacts your ability to work, the more likely you will win the benefits you need.

Learn how to effectively describe your pain to a disability judge as part of your hearing. 


8 Questions disability judges ask in disability hearings

You can expect a disability judge to ask several questions about the location and severity of your pain and how it relates to your ability to work and perform daily functions. These questions might include:

  1. Can you describe the pain for me? 

  2. Can you share where you feel pain?

  3. What are the triggers for your pain? 

  4. What makes your pain worse?

  5. How long can you stand at one time?

  6. How long can you walk at one time?

  7. How do you get to and from the doctor’s office? 

  8. Did you drive here today?

A disability lawyer can help you prepare answers to best describe your experience of pain and limitations for the disability hearing.


4 Tips for describing pain to a disability judge

It is important to clearly communicate your pain to a disability judge. Consider the following tips:

  1. Be honest and consistent in your answers. To build credibility with your case, it is important to be consistent about your symptoms throughout your application and at the disability hearing. 

  2. Be descriptive. Describe the location, intensity, and length of pain. For example, you might say, “My pain is located in both of my legs, from mid-thigh down through my feet. On an average day, I experience moderate pain 24/7, with hour-long episodes of severe pain occurring if I’m on my feet for longer than a few minutes.”

  3. Give examples and analogies. It can be helpful to compare your pain with experiences everyone can understand. For example, you might say, “My neuropathy makes my hands and feet feel like they’re receiving constant electric shocks.” 

  4. Relate your pain to daily activities. Most importantly, the judge wants to understand how your condition impacts your daily functioning. For instance, you might describe how your arthritis affects your ability to keep up around the house: “Because of the pain in my hands and fingers, I can no longer grip cooking utensils or a mop handle.”

  5. Use a pain scale. You might use a pain scale from 1-10 to describe pain when performing daily activities, like walking, lifting, or performing chores. This can be a helpful way to communicate your pain level to the judge. 

Words to describe pain to a disability judge

When describing pain to a disability judge, it is important to be descriptive. Don’t just say “it hurts.” Instead, use terms that describe the nature and intensity of the pain, like:

  • Aching

  • Burning

  • Cramping

  • Dull

  • Radiating

  • Sharp

  • Shooting

  • Stabbing

  • Tender

  • Throbbing

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How do you explain daily activities at a disability hearing?

During a disability hearing, the judge will gather information about how your symptoms and pain impact your day-to-day life. Come prepared to talk about how your pain impacts your ability to perform work tasks, maintain personal care, and complete household chores.

To give the judge a better idea of your circumstances, talk about daily activities that trigger your pain. For example, if you are a hairdresser and standing for more than 10 minutes exacerbates your back pain, this is a concrete example showing why you can no longer work as a hairdresser. 

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How to prepare for your disability hearing

Here are a few steps you can take before your disability hearing to ensure you’re prepared to accurately describe your pain: 

  • Bring medical records to the hearing. Make sure to have any relevant medical records on hand so you can reference them as needed while you talk about your pain. Judges want to see objective medical evidence that you have physical pain.

  • List your treatments and medications. The Social Security Administration is also looking for details on current and past treatments and medications to help alleviate your pain. Bring this information with you to your hearing.

  • Make a cheat sheet. In addition to bringing medical records, consider making a concise cheat sheet for yourself. Include notes such as dates, diagnoses, and answers to potential questions. This will help you remember details accurately when you’re put on the spot. 

  • Track your symptoms. Use a notebook or an app to track your symptoms and pain leading up to the heating. This can help you identify patterns or triggers for pain.


What not to say in a disability hearing

Knowing what not to say in a disability hearing is just as important as knowing what you should say. Here are a few things to avoid as you prepare to describe your pain:

  • Don’t be rude. Even if the SSA interviewer asks you questions about your conditions that are frustrating or seem obvious, stay honest and calm as you answer.

  • Don’t go on tangents. Your disability hearing is not the place for rants or personal anecdotes. Stay on topic to build credibility with your case.

  • Don’t talk about undiagnosed conditions. If a doctor has not formally diagnosed you with a condition, don’t mention it during your hearing. To avoid confusion, describe the pain associated with the conditions listed on your initial application.


Get help with your SSDI hearing

A disability lawyer can help you prepare the best answers to describe your condition to a judge. More than 80% of disability applicants have a lawyer at their hearing. While this is not a requirement, a disability lawyer improves your chances of winning benefits by three times. 

Get help with your disability hearing from Atticus. We match disability applicants with lawyers who can prepare them and represent them at a hearing. Take our two-minute disability quiz and a team member will follow up to learn more.

Related resources:

What to Expect at a Social Security Disability Hearing

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
By Jackie Jakab

What Do Social Security Disability Lawyers Do (That I Can’t)?

A hand drawn image of the lead disability lawyer.
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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