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Severe back conditions, GRID rules and how to win SSDI?

Navigating the Social Security Administration’s disability process with the complicated forms, nonsensical procedures, and lengthy wait times can be infuriating. Add to this the fact that most disability applicants are in poor health or simply do not have the energy to figure it all out and it can be more than a bit frustrating. Recently on our disability forum a user asked, “I have a severe back condition which does not allow me to work. I do not understand how the SSA will determine whether or not I am disabled. Can you help?”

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Disability and a severe back condition

If you have a severe back condition, including herniated nucleus pulposus, spinal arachnoiditis, spinal stenosis, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, facet arthritis, or vertebral fracture, the SSA will first need to determine if you are disabled. To make this determination they will evaluate your condition using what they term the Five Step Sequential Evaluation process. The process is as following:
  1. Are You Working?
  2. Is Your Condition “Severe”
  3. Does Your Condition Meet a Listing?
  4. Can You Perform Your Past Relevant Work?
  5. Can You Perform Any Work?
While the details for each step can be complicated, and the SSA has hundreds of pages of information to describe exactly what is asked and evaluated at each step, assuming you pass step one and two, the remaining steps can be drilled down to two issues: whether your condition meets a listing or whether the SSA determines you are disabled through a medical vocational allowance or GRID rules.

Meeting a listing for a severe back condition

Assuming you are not working and your severe back condition will last at least 12 months, the SSA will first determine whether your condition meets or equals a listing. Severe back conditions, such as those listed above, are evaluated under the Listing 1.00 Muscular, Section 1.04 Disorders of the Spine. Not only does your condition have to be listed or meet in severity a listed condition, you will also have to prove your symptoms are as severe as those listed. Proving disability for a severe back condition through medical vocational allowance Unfortunately, many claimants, especially those at the appeal level, do not have a condition which meets a listing. If this is the case, they must prove they do not have the residual functional capacity to work through a medical vocational allowance. This process uses what is also known as “grid rules” because the information or rules which are referenced by judges and lawyers to make this determination are established in a five column grid. The courts use the grid rules to determine whether older claimants with limited educational and work experience are able to work. The general consensus is older claimants will have a more difficult time finding entry level work and can be found disabled more readily than a younger claimant. Grid rules are only used, however, if you have a physical health issue. There are five Grids which range from the least level of exertion to the most: sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.  To use the Grid, the SSA will first decide your exertional level. Next, they will review the corresponding chart and determine, based on your past employment and your age, whether you are now disabled. For example, if you have been limited to sedentary work, you are of an advanced age, you have limited education, and you have only performed unskilled work, under GRID rule 201.01 you would be found disabled. Bottom Line: Not all back conditions are considered severe enough to be disabling. You can be found disabling for a back condition if your condition meets a listing or you do not have sufficient residual capacity to work as determined by one of five grids. Recent articles: Disability hearing in 4 weeks what should I be doing?