In an RFC assessment, disability claims examiners assess your physical and mental limitations to determine whether your disability limits you so much that you can’t work full-time. Unfortunately, the claims examiners at Disability Determination Services often give short shrift to pain. One reason for this is that a disability applicant’s complaints of pain are subjective and hard to prove. And doctors who actually treat disability applicants (the “treating physicians”) commonly do a poor job of referencing their patients’ levels of pain in their treatment notes and inferring what the resulting effects might be on the patient’s ability to engage in normal daily activities. It doesn’t help matters that Social Security medical consultants, who work in conjunction with disability examiners to make initial determinations on claims, never meet the disability claimants whose medical records they read and evaluate.
However, federal court cases have held that Social Security must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of your pain symptoms on your ability to do basic work activities. The following factors should be considered:
Your doctor should include information on the above factors in his notes so that they appear in your medical record. In addition, Social Security will want to know your doctor’s opinion on the functional limitations you have that are caused by your pain and how long your chronic pain is expected to limit your ability to function.
Determining how your chronic pain limits you physically can be tricky. You may be able to stand or walk for an hour without resting, but only by gritting your teeth against the pain. Or perhaps a long walk feels fine at the time, but you pay for it later with sore muscles or exhaustion. When applying, you need to be realistic about how your pain would limit you in full-time employment. If you can only stand or walk an hour at a time by ignoring a great deal of pain, you probably cannot stand or walk an hour at a time every day to do a job. (This would mean that you are limited to doing sedentary work, or even “less than sedentary” work.)
And don’t forget to write down all the things you do to relieve your pain throughout the day. Do you have to put your feet up periodically? Do you need to lie down or nap every day? Is it important that you are able to stand up and stretch your legs when whenever you want? Do you have to apply heat or cold packs throughout the day? These are physical limitations that affect your ability to work some full-time jobs, so you need to include them in your application. Remember, if you (and your doctor) don’t write it down, Social Security won’t know all the ways your pain limits you. (For more information, see our article on why your doctor needs to document your functional limitations.)
In general, pain is not something that can be established by objective testing or observation. Only you can know whether and how much it hurts. For this reason, your credibility is very important to establish disability based on chronic pain. This is why it’s important not to exaggerate your symptoms. However, if Social Security denies you benefits because it doesn’t believe your symptoms are as bad as you say they are, the agency must have clear and convincing reasons to reject the claims in your application or your testimony.
The most important thing that Social Security considers to evaluate your credibility is your activities of daily living (ADLs). In the application process, you will provide information about what you are able to do despite your disability. For example, are you able to cook, clean, do yard work, shop, and care for children? Social Security may also send you an ADL questionnaire to fill out or make an ADL call to your friends and relatives to ask whether you can do certain activities.
Be sure to consider how your chronic pain makes everyday life difficult. For example, you may be able to do the same household chores you always did, but perhaps they take three times as long because you have to stop and rest so much. When you go shopping, do you have to have someone come along to carry the bags? What about your social life – do you still go out to see friends, or has it been months since you left your house except to see the doctor?
It is important to be honest with yourself about how limited your life has become. If your activities of daily living appear normal, Social Security will find it hard to believe that your chronic pain is disabling.
Receiving continuous medical treatment is also very important to establish your credibility. Social Security will doubt that you have really been in severe pain if you have not sought treatment for your pain on an ongoing and continuous basis.
Treatment may include non-medical or non-traditional methods such as acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, exercise, yoga, meditation, and herbal supplements. Be sure to document everything you do to relieve your pain in your application for disability benefits. If you haven’t been able to afford to see a doctor, see our article on applying for disability without regular doctor visits.
Don’t forget to consider the mental and emotional effects of chronic pain. Including information about how your pain affects your mental capabilities may be very important to establish disability through the RFC assessment. (If Social Security finds that the physical effects of your pain limit you to sedentary work, there will still be plenty of jobs you can do unless you can show that you don’t have the mental capacity for sedentary work.)
Mental effects of chronic pain often include difficulties with concentration and memory. It can be hard to learn and retain new information when you are distracted by pain. Chronic pain may also make you impatient and irritable, making it difficult to get along with supervisors and coworkers.
Because chronic pain can be very difficult to live with, the emotional effects of your pain should also be considered. Living with chronic pain may cause depression and anxiety. Psychological stress may cause increased pain. If your medical providers have ever suggested that you seek therapy or a psychological evaluation, be sure to follow up. Include any diagnoses or treatment for mental illness in your disability application.
After doing a physical and mental RFC assessment on you, Social Security applies a formula that includes your age, education, and job skills to determine whether you qualify for disability. For more information, see our section about how Social Security uses your RFC to determine disability.