Simply defined, Scoliosis is a medical condition in which a person’s spine is not curved in a normal way, rather it coils laterally (sideways) to form a shape that is similar to alphabets “C” or “S.”
There are various types of Scoliosis, and the effect of this spinal deformity can vary amongst individuals depending upon the severity of their condition. This is exactly what complicates the answer to a frequently asked question: “Is Scoliosis a disability?” The reason being, that most people asking this question actually want to inquire whether those suffering from Scoliosis are eligible for Social Security Disability Benefits or not.
The Social Services Administration (SSA) in the USA has defined certain criteria and outlined the level of impact under which Disability Benefits will be granted. However, before moving on to discuss the established guidelines, it would be helpful to understand the types, causes, and levels of this abnormality so as to be aware of all the related terms.
How to assess the severity of a person’s condition?
Cobb angle is what gauges the extremity of a Scoliosis patient’s condition. It calculates the deviation level of the spine from the point where it should have ideally been aligned. In order to figure that out, a measure of the most-tilted vertebrae at the top-most part of the curve is taken.
This entire assessment is made possible via an X-Ray.
This measure is what helps categorize cases as severe, moderate, or mild. It also determines whether a spine deformity would be classified as Scoliosis or not. In order to be considered a victim of this abnormality, an individual must meet all of the following conditions:
- His/her spine should be curved in an unusual manner (towards the side).
- The spine should coincide with rotation.
- The measure of the person’s Cobb Angle should be at least 10 degrees.
Understandably, a person who has a spine deviation of 10 degrees would be considered a mild sufferer. In severe cases, the curvature can be as high as 150 degrees. This would help you understand why Scoliosis patients and their capabilities vary widely.
Types of Scoliosis
Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS)
As per the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), almost 2-3% of the US nationals are affected by Scoliosis. The Scoliosis Reduction Center states that 80% of the cases identified categorize as AIS.
Adolescent Scoliosis randomly starts showing its signs amongst youngsters who are 10-18 years of age. Although it is the most prevalent type, no cause has yet been identified for this unexpected occurrence of deformity. Symptoms of AIS include but are not limited to; abnormal postures, asymmetrical ribs, and unevenness in shoulders and arm lengths.
Remaining 20% of cases can be classified into 4 different types:
Unlike AIS, the root cause for each of these has been identified.
Some infants are born with Scoliosis because a malformation occurs in their spinal vertebrae while they are in their mother’s womb. This is referred to as Congenital Scoliosis. However, it is a rare occurrence and the condition is observed in only 1 out of 10,000 newborns.
Symptoms include a tilt in the shoulders, ribs that are more prominent on one particular side, and an unevenness in the waistline.
Sometimes the abnormality in spinal curvature develops as a result of some other disease or medical condition which affects the body’s level of control over the spine’s support muscles. The resulting deformity is referred to as Neuromuscular Scoliosis. Example of one disease which causes this is muscular dystrophy.
Deterioration of organs and tissues takes place as a person ages. Hence, it is no surprise that an individual’s spine also undergoes degenerative changes. Some of these changes may take place in discs separating the spinal vertebrae which, in turn, result in Degenerative Scoliosis.
Scoliosis may also be an aftermath of trauma or injury affecting a person’s spine, in which case, it is referred to as Traumatic Scoliosis.
Now that we have discussed the various types of Scoliosis, we hope you would have developed a better understanding of the factors that cause this deformity and the reason its impact varies from one case to the other. Therefore, whether Scoliosis classifies as a disability or not depends on the extent to which it restricts an individual’s ability.
When talking in terms of benefits provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA), the decision is based on factors such as the severity of Scoliosis, the health condition of the individual, and the duration for which s/he worked/earned before being affected.
Is Scoliosis a Disability under SSA?
According to the definition of SSA, an individual affected by Scoliosis is considered to be disabled only if:
- The person’s condition (Scoliosis severity) does not allow them to carry on with the income-generating activity they were previously involved in.
- Their condition restricts them from performing other work of similar nature.
- The person has had Scoliosis for at least a year. If not, then s/he is expected to suffer from it for a minimum of one year.
The gist is that type and extent of suffering should act as a barrier to resuming work/employment in order for your condition to classify as a disability.
Some affected individuals might be disappointed upon being unable to find a section for Scoliosis under the list of “Considered Disabilities” on SSA’s informative resources. While it is true that this condition is not specifically mentioned in SSA’s listing, severe cases are acknowledged under the heading of Musculoskeletal Disorders. If the condition results in considerable problems related to the spine, it would be deemed as a disability under the sub-heading “Disorders of the Spine”.
Furthermore, Scoliosis may also cause additional health problems related to heart and lungs. If so, it may be categorized as a disability under “Respiratory Disorders” or “Cardiovascular Disorders”.
However, it must be kept in mind that qualifying for Disability Benefits is not easy. They will only be provided in severe cases and even then, the extremity of your condition would need to be proved via medical record. Hence, an applicant must be prepared for sharing their X-Ray, CAT, and MRI reports with the relevant department(s), along with undergoing a physical examination that would affirm the claimed limitations and check if there are any chances of improvement in the near future.
Social Security Disability (SSD) Benefits for Scoliosis
As the name suggests, SSD Benefits assist those who have incurred a disability. However, meeting the conditions outlined in SSA’s definition and inability to work is not all that is required for receiving these benefits. The program only provides assistance to those who are “insured” against mishaps. This means that individuals who have worked in recent years for the minimum specified period and paid Social Security taxes on the amount they earned will now get the assistance in return, given that they meet the medical and other requirements.
Furthermore, in order to be eligible for SSD, disabled individuals must not have alternate means of generating income. If they do, then income from these sources must not exceed a certain amount.
Applying for SSD Benefits
One may apply for Disability Benefits in person, online, or via phone. Whatever approach an individual adopts, s/he will have to follow these basic steps:
- Gather all the documents in accordance with the Adult Disability Checklist.
- Fill out the application form and submit it along with any additional information required.
Subject to meeting the basic requirements, the concerned department will forward the application to the Disability Determination Services Office in the relevant state. It is the state which then makes the final decision regarding granting Disability Benefits.
However, if a Scoliosis sufferer or any other disabled individual is not satisfied with the decision, they are entitled to make an appeal against it. The request must be made in writing, not later than 60 days from first receiving the initial verdict. The appeal can be made on 4 different levels. Further details regarding the process can be accessed on the SSA’s official website.
Scoliosis and its impact on the ability to work
As we observed in the initial section of this article, Scoliosis cases may vary from mild to severe (recall the contrast between deviation angles 10 and 150 degrees). Therefore, it would be wrong to assume that all those affected suffer from reduced abilities. In fact, those with mild or moderate levels of Scoliosis can continue performing tasks normally.
In less severe cases, physical differences are also not very prominent. AIS, in particular, is difficult to detect at an early stage due to this very reason. This is one of the obstacles to its timely treatment.
However, when we say that most victims can carry out routine tasks easily until and unless their deformity is severe, we consider old age sufferers to be an exception. Even mild Scoliosis may cause the elderly to experience pain and mobility issues.
Besides a person’s age and severity of their condition, their health may also determine the extent to which they are affected by Scoliosis. A comparatively healthy individual will be able to cope better with this challenge in contrast to someone who already had other medical problems before developing this condition.
Moving on to those few who suffer from extreme levels of Scoliosis, they are the ones who face challenges such as limited mobility and inability to perform tasks. Consequently, they are not able to work. However, they need to prove this to SSA in order to avail financial benefits. For this purpose, a document needs to be issued by their workplace, mentioning the responsibilities specific to their role and verifying the fact that their condition restricts them from fulfilling those duties efficiently.
Furthermore, the individual is also required to provide details regarding any other work they have done previously, along with an explanation of how Scoliosis can be a challenge if that mode of employment is adopted.
Any limitation reported by the individual as a hindrance to their working ability will be assessed by Social Security, whether it be physical, sensory, or mental. In fact, a Residential Functional Capacity (RFC) Form is used to analyze the case, and options are derived for making an individual resume work by considering alternate jobs that they can perform despite their disability.
However, if the limitations are found to be valid and they really prevent the individual from participating in any income-generating activity, then the person would be granted Disability Benefits.
As is the case with any challenge in life, part of the solution depends on how you respond to the problem. Is Scoliosis a disability in the eyes of SSA is another question, but for maintaining the quality of life, the sufferers themselves must not consider it to be a limitation. Agreed, that severe cases are an exception, but those with moderate symptoms can continue living a normal life if they do not become disheartened. Maintaining a positive outlook, being thankful that they are not posed with any major functional obstacle and making efforts to decrease the level of their curvature via appropriate treatment is the key to a happy and content life.
An example of a Scoliosis sufferer who made an extraordinary achievement that not even those with normal spinal curvatures could match is Usain Bolt, whom we all recognize as “the world’s fastest man”. Bolt is a true example of how one’s attitude towards a problem makes all the difference.
Scoliosis is not analogous to a life sentence. It can be treated via different methods such as surgery, chiropractic techniques, therapy, and corrective bracing, depending on the person’s condition. As of 2007, National Scoliosis Foundation reported the application of braces to approximately 30,000 children per year. Besides, 38,000 affected individuals were claimed to be undergoing spinal fusion surgery each year. With 600,000 plus Scoliosis sufferers visiting private healthcare providers on an annual basis, it can be said that those affected are actively making efforts to improve their condition and seem to have a positive approach.