Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Social Security Disability

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) happens when the median nerve in the carpal tunnel (wrist area) is constantly compressed and causes strain on the nerve. It's one of the most common nerve compression disorders, affecting as many as 10 million, the American College of Rheumatology reported.

If you're suffering from (CTS) and find it interferes too much with your ability to work and perform daily living activities, there may be help available. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has two benefit programs to help support you financially if you become disabled.

Financial Costs of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Because the disease is so prevalent, the total cost is very high. CTS costs the United States an estimated $1 billion each year in surgical expenses and $20 billion in workers compensation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Individually, costs can range from $5,000 to $30,000, the Carpal Tunnel HQ found, depending on the severity of the CTS and it's treatment needs.

CTS is also one of the highest in indirect costs, with most patients missing an average of 23 days from work from repetitive motions like typing, grasping tools, and scanning groceries, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. However, the National Center for Health Statistics stated that at least half of patients need 31 days off or more.

Even after surgery, not all patients had restored use of their wrists and hands. First Hand Medical explained that while some improvement happens in 70 percent of cases, full restoration is achieved in less than 60 percent of surgeries. First Hand Medical found that after surgery, rehabilitation normally takes between six weeks and three months, but can last up to a year in severe cases if symptoms linger or too much scar tissue develops.

Furthermore, a study done by the Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine showed that only 67 percent of patients were able to return to their old jobs after surgery, 15 percent had to change jobs, and the remainder couldn't return to work.

Medically Qualifying for Benefits with the Blue Book

The SSA uses the Blue Book to evaluate all disability applications they receive. The Blue Book features hundreds of listings of disabilities with medical requirements that qualify for benefits.

There is no specific listing for CTS, but you may be able to apply under one of the following listings:

  • 1.02—Major dysfunction of a joint due to any cause (Musculoskeletal): Though CTS doesn't directly affect muscles in the wrist, it may be possible to equal this listing of gross anatomical deformity, because the median nerve is responsible for function of some muscles in the hand. Must be unaccompanied by chronic joint pain and stiffness with signs of limitation of motion or other abnormal motion of the affected joint with involvement of one major peripheral joint in each upper extremity (wrist-hand), resulting in inability to perform fine and large movements effectively.
  • 1.08—Soft tissue injury (Musculoskeletal): Injuries in soft tissue injury (like tendons, ligaments, or nerves) of an upper or lower extremity, trunk, or face and head, under continuing surgical management toward the salvage or restoration of major function that wasn't restored or expected to be restored within 12 months of onset.
  • 11.14—Peripheral Neuropathies (Neurological): Significant and persistent issues with motor function in two extremities (both wrists), resulting in continuous disturbance of large or fine movements.

You'll have a much better than of being approved for CTS when applying with other disabling conditions. However, if you continue have problems working, talk to your doctor about applying for benefits.

Qualifying Without Meeting a Medical Listing

Chances are, you won't find a Blue Book listing to meet or equal your CTS symptoms, but that isn't the only way to get approved for benefits. If your CTS symptoms are expected to last for a year or more and you find it impossible to work enough to earn the SSA's minimum of $1,130 per month, you may be eligible under a medical-vocational allowance.

The SSA, using their grid rules, find your Residual Functioning Capacity (RFC). It takes your limitations and places you in a category of work ability—sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy. Then it looks at your work history and highest education level to determine if there are jobs that overlap.

A CTS approval can still be rare, even with an RFC, though there are many symptoms that may restrict you from performing daily living and working activities. CTS can affect your ability to type, file or hold, grasp, push, pull, pick up, and movie objects due to weakness, numbness, or pain in hands, arms, and fingers.

Because of this, the SSA may find that you can't do sedentary work. Your doctor's statement is so important to an illness like this. You'll want to make sure s/he lists every single limitation, no matter how small it may seem, especially if it was caused by actions in your current job.

Because of the nature of CTS, it may not matter whether you worked in sedentary or physically demanding jobs throughout your lifetime, because both can cause CTS and be aversely affected from movement restrictions. However, the SSA is usually more likely to accept those in manual jobs or those with little or no education, because many other applicants can be reasonably trained in another job.

How to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits

Talk to your doctor before you apply for disability benefits. Getting an approval, if you do get one, can take months or years, especially with a condition like CTS. If your doctor doesn't think your chances of approval or high enough or that your symptoms won't last a full year, the application and time out of work may not be worth your time.

Whether you meet or equal a Blue Book listing or you're applying under and RFC, you need to have all of the medical evidence the SSA requires in your initial claim. Most claims are denied in the initial stage simply because there is too much missing information. The same goes for information that is accidentally left out or misspelled.

The SSA has a lot of cases to go over, so if they can't find the information they need in less severe conditions like CTS, they may deny you or delay your answer. Only about 30 percent of claims are approved.

Important medical evidence may include:

  • Nerve conduction study, to see if electrical impulses are getting through the median nerve.
  • Electromyogram, which tests electrical activity of muscles.
  • X-rays, to rule out any other diagnosis
  • Ultrasound, to check to size of the median nerve.
  • MRI, to check for swelling of the median nerve, compression, or issues in blood circulation.
  • Blood tests, to rule out other conditions.
  • All operative reports and summaries of other hospitalizations
  • Summaries and reactions of all treatments you've received.
  • A detailed statement from your doctor(s) describing the severity of your CTS and the limitations causes by the condition.

When you're ready to apply for benefits, you can either make an appointment at your local SSA office or you can apply online at the SSA's website. If you wish to apply for Supplementary Security Income, you must do so in person at an SSA office.

Make sure you have all the necessary documentation for your application, to ensure it gets processed as quickly as possible, because missing information can lead to a denial of benefits. In addition to medical evidence, you'll need tax information, a birth certificate, and more. A complete list of required materials can be found on the SSA's website.

If there are changes in your CTS or you are diagnosed with any new disabling conditions after you applied for benefits, let the SSA know as soon as possible. More evidence pointing to the debilitating nature of your disorder may speed up an answer or improve your chances of winning your claim.

If you are approved for disability benefits, your spouse and children could also qualify for benefits. To learn more about the different forms about disability benefits, visit our pages on Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.