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If you have sleep apnea, you can qualify for disability benefits if the condition impacts your ability work. In 2022, 2.7% of disability recipients qualified for benefits with respiratory conditions. The Social Security Administration (SSA) classifies sleep apnea as a disease of the respiratory system.
To qualify for disability for sleep apnea, you must demonstrate you cannot work in any capacity due to your condition and meet the SSA’s eligibility criteria.
This guide outlines the eligibility requirements and possible next steps to prepare you better to apply for disability benefits.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder causing repeated breathing interruptions during sleep. This temporary airflow blockage can cause symptoms such as snoring, daytime sleepiness, and dry mouth.
If experienced for an extended period, sleep-related breathing disorders like sleep apnea can lead to other conditions, including low blood oxygen (hypoxemia) and restricted blood flow in the pulmonary blood vessels (hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction). In turn, these effects can cause complications such as chronic pulmonary hypertension.
3 Common types of sleep apnea
There are three main types of sleep apnea:
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): The most common form of sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, is caused by the throat muscles relaxing, thus blocking airflow into the lungs.
Central sleep apnea (CSA): This form of sleep apnea happens when the brain fails to send signals to keep the muscles related to breathing working. Central sleep apnea can result from damage to or conditions associated with the nervous system, low blood oxygen levels, or heart failure.
Complex sleep apnea (CompSA): Complex sleep apnea, also known as treatment-emergent sleep apnea, is a combination of obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Sometimes, treatment for obstructive sleep apnea can cause central sleep apnea.
The Social Security Administration considers sleep apnea a disability if the condition prevents you from being able to fulfill your work responsibilities.
The SSA classifies sleep apnea as a respiratory condition, specifically a sleep-related breathing disorder. Eligibility requirements for sleep apnea appear in the SSA Blue Book, a resource of conditions that qualify for disability benefits, in Section 3.01.
The SSA evaluates sleep apnea under the affected body systems, like chronic pulmonary hypertension, chronic heart failure, and mental disorders.
Sleep apnea symptoms
People with sleep apnea may experience the following symptoms:
Excessive daytime sleepiness
Can you get disability for sleep apnea?
You can qualify for Social Security disability benefits if you experience complications from sleep apnea and are unable to work due to your condition. The application process can take months or years and can be challenging.
One way to improve your chances of qualifying is by applying with another qualifying condition if you have one. For instance, it's common for people with sleep apnea to also have conditions such as:
Congestive heart failure
Hormonal conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Hypoxemia, or low blood oxygen
Lung diseases, such as asthma
Type 2 diabetes
Beyond Social Security benefits, if you're a veteran, you may also be able to qualify for VA disability benefits if you have sleep apnea. You can learn more on the VA disability homepage.
How to get disability with sleep apnea
Sleep apnea can qualify for disability, but you'll need to demonstrate your condition prevents you from being able to work. Medical evidence and treatment reports can help strengthen your application.
Medical evidence: Documentation of the severity of your sleep apnea should include your medical history, any findings from physical exams, and the results of imaging, pulmonary function tests, and other relevant lab tests.
Treatment reports: Descriptions of any prescribed treatments for your sleep apnea and details on your response.
Further, the SSA will look for the following results from pulmonary function tests when deciding whether or not your sleep apnea qualifies for disability:
Proof that your FVC (forced vital capacity) is less than or equal to values laid out by the SSA for your age, gender, and height. A forced vital capacity is a lung functioning test that measures the amount of air you exhale.
Proof that your FEV1 (forced expiratory volume in the first second of a forced expiratory maneuver) is less than or equal to values laid out by the SSA for your age, gender, and height.
Proof of chronic impairment of gas exchange, as demonstrated through an approved measurement.
Proof that you've experienced exacerbations or complications related to your sleep apnea that have required at least three hospitalizations within a 12-month period. Note that each hospitalization must be at least 30 days apart from a prior hospitalization, and it must last for a minimum of 48 hours, including any time spent in an emergency department right before your hospitalization.
Additionally, the SSA will consider any impairments resulting from your sleep apnea that affect other body systems and take into account any other impairments you may have that might exacerbate the symptoms of your sleep apnea.
5 Questions to ask yourself before applying
Before you apply for Social Security disability, consider asking yourself some questions to assess your odds of approval. If you can answer "yes" to the majority of the following questions, then your odds of qualifying for disability benefits are higher.
Have you received a diagnosis of sleep apnea and explored treatment options?
Do you need medical devices, such as a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, to sleep?
Do you experience fatigue that impacts your ability to walk, stand, and work?
Has your sleep apnea led to other complications, such as hypoxemia or pulmonary vasoconstriction?
Do you experience changes in your mood, cognition, or behavior because of your sleep apnea? Have you received a mental health diagnosis due to sleep apnea?
My sleep apnea meets the criteria. Now what?
If you appear to meet the criteria for your sleep apnea to qualify, the next step is to apply for disability benefits. If you’re uncertain about your eligibility, consider the following to help determine the appropriate next steps:
Apply now if:You've been diagnosed with sleep apnea and explored treatment options.Your symptoms persist despite treatment and make it impossible for you to work.You have another qualifying health condition.
Consider waiting and applying later if:You haven't needed to stop working yet, even if you think you may need to eventually.You're still exploring treatment options, and it seems like your symptoms will improve.
Probably don’t apply if:Your sleep apnea is manageable enough that you can continue to work.You earn over $1,400 or so per month, which is the income limit for SSDI and SSI as of 2023.
What type of benefits should I apply for?
As you navigate the application process, you'll discover that there are two types of disability benefits. The first is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), which is intended for individuals who have worked and paid taxes for at least five of the last 10 years. The other is Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program for people who haven’t worked much or at all and who have low income and few assets.
The average disability check for a respiratory condition like sleep apnea is $1,356.10 per month. That said, it's possible to receive more than that — the maximum monthly amount you could receive for sleep apnea as of 2023 is $3,627 for SSD and $914 for SSI.
Note that these upper limits apply regardless of how many qualifying conditions you apply with or which condition ultimately qualifies you. Further, the exact amount you receive will depend on your work history for SSDI or, if you're getting SSI, other sources of income.
If you suspect your condition does not meet the SSA’s criteria for disability benefits, you can still apply and assess the outcome. Keep in mind that you will need to demonstrate with medical records that your sleep apnea prevents you from being able to work.
Qualifying for disability can be challenging, even if your sleep apnea symptoms are severe. You can increase your odds of approval by applying to the right program and partnering with an experienced lawyer.
Going into the application process, it's also important to realize there's a high chance you'll get turned down on your first try. About 80% of first-time applicants are rejected. But if you keep trying, you stand a better chance, as evidenced by the significantly higher chances of winning an appeal.
Get help applying for disability
Take the 2-minute Atticus disability benefits quiz to see if you qualify for disability benefits. If it seems like you have a good chance of qualifying based on your responses to the quiz, we'll reach out to you to learn more. And, if you'd like, we can pair you with a qualified disability lawyer — you won't have to pay anything for their services until after you win your benefits.
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