March 19, 2015

Objective Testing and Your Social Security Disability Claim

Proving you are disabled to the Social Security Administration (SSA) is not always easy.  Before the SSA will even consider how your symptoms affect your ability to work, you must show that you have a “medically determinable impairment.”  Telling Social Security that you have pain or fatigue or memory loss is not enough, by itself, to establish a medically determinable impairment.  You must also be able to provide objective evidence that explains why you have those symptoms.

The most direct evidence you can provide is objective test results.  These tests might include:

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  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and X-rays: these tests show the location and severity of physical damage to your musculoskeletal system that might cause symptoms such as pain.
  • Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies: this type of test shows whether you have nerve damage that might cause symptoms such as pain, numbness, or weakness.
  • Electroencephalography (EEG): this test helps to show abnormal activity in your brain that might cause symptoms from seizures or sleep disorders.
  • CT Scans: these tests show damage to your organs that might cause symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, or fatigue.
  • Blood tests: these tests can show the presence or absence of different substances in your blood, which in turn can help prove that you have certain anti-immune disorders or other diseases.
  • Stress tests: these tests measure the effects of exertion on your heart and can help quantify the severity of your cardiovascular symptoms.
  • Echocardiograms: the results of these tests can show abnormalities in your heart that might cause symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, or fatigue.

Not all medical conditions can be proven using objective testing, though. Mental health disorders, migraines, fibromyalgia, and pain disorders are notoriously difficult to prove because there are no reliable tests available to confirm them or rule them out.  This does not mean, of course, that these conditions do not qualify as “medically determinable impairments.”  If your medical records show that you have been appropriately diagnosed with an impairment, that impairment can be found to be a disabling condition.  In those cases, Social Security reviews the “signs” of your impairment that have been observed by your medical providers.  Medical “signs” are anatomical, physical, or psychological abnormalities that can be observed using medically acceptable clinical diagnostic techniques.  (See Social Security Ruling 96-4p.)  “Symptoms,” on the other hand, are your subjective descriptions of your impairments.

Many of my Indiana neighbors tell me they are in extreme pain, but they cannot afford to pay for appropriate medical testing.  While Social Security occasionally will pay for some diagnostic tests like x-rays or pulmonary function tests, there is no guarantee that Social Security will order the tests best suited for proving the severity of your impairments.  If you have adequate health insurance coverage and your medical provider agrees that objective testing is appropriate, those test results can help to show the SSA that you are disabled under its rules.

Another type of evidence that should carry a lot of weight with the SSA’s decision makers is a “medical source statement,” which is a statement from your treating doctor about the limitations caused by your conditions.  If your physician records the specific mental and physical work-related limitations you experience, and the rest of the evidence supports your physician’s opinion, such a medical source statement may greatly enhance the likelihood that you will receive a favorable outcome in your Social Security disability appeal.

This article is not intended to discourage you from applying for Social Security disability benefits; if you are unable to work due to a disabling mental or physical condition I encourage you to apply for benefits.  Social Security cannot simply deny your application for benefits for the sole reason that you are not receiving adequate medical treatment, especially if you are unable to receive treatment because you are unable to afford it.  When you do apply, make sure you attend all of the examinations Social Security schedules, provide all of the information they request, and carefully comply with all of the deadlines.

My staff and I understand how frustrating it is to be unable to work and to get the level of medical care you need.  We make sure that Social Security has all of the evidence available so they can make a good decision on your claim, and we help our clients obtain medical source statements and medical records from their medical providers.  Please remember, this blog is not intended as legal advice.

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