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How to Prove Pain in a
Social Security Disability Case

   The fundamental issue in every Social Security disability case has to do with your ability to perform work.  It is very likely that pain interferes with your work capacity.  How do you prove to a Social Security claims rep, and eventually a Social Security judge, that you are experiencing pain and that your pain limits you from functioning as a reliable employee?

   Pain is characterized by Social Security as a “non-exertional” impairment. This means that pain cannot be measured in any sort of objective manner.  By contrast, an exertional limitation is one that can be measured.  For example, if you have a herniated disk in your back, a physician can conclude that your capacity for lifting is limited to 5 lbs., that your capacity for walking is limited to 50 yards, and that you cannot engage in activities that require climbing, stooping, crawling or squatting.

Describing Pain in Objective Terms

   Pain is not so easily measured.  After all, everyone has a different pain threshold and no one can get inside your head and truly understand your experience of pain.

  Social Security does, however, recognize that constant and intractable pain can produce significant work activity limitations.  Here are some suggestions about how to document your level of pain for Social Security purposes:

  • classify your pain using a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being equivalent to a mild headache and 10 being equivalent to a kidney stone or knife wound.  Do not make the mistake of exaggerating your level of pain such that your credibility is destroyed. For example, if you have been diagnosed with a herniated disk, your pain may be related to your activity level.  Instead of claiming that your pain is at a level 10 all the time, a more credible allegation would be that your pain is always at a level 5 or 6, but that it spikes up to an 8 or 9 if I exert myself by trying to vacuum the house or rake the yard, and that if I overdo it, I am in bed for at least a day or two thereafter.  Further, you might claim that on average, due to daily activities, your pain spikes to an 8 or 9 at least 3 days a week for a minimum of 4 hours at a time.
  • when alleging pain, you need to establish yourself as a credible witness.  If you allege pain at a level 10 all of the time, you will not be considered believable. Further, if you allege level 8 pain because of a broken thumb, that will not be deemed credible
  • pain need only be a piece of the puzzle.  A moderate to severe level of pain may serve to limit you from past work that is complex or skilled, with other limitations serving to disable you from simple, unskilled jobs

Speak Social Security’s Language
When Describing Pain

   The language that Social Security uses when evaluating the impact of pain relates to:

  • whether you can maintain attention and concentration
  • whether you can maintain sufficient persistence and pace on the job
  • whether you can get along with co-workers and supervisors
  • whether you can get through a workday without breaking down or taking excessive unexcused breaks
  • when describing how pain impacts you, speak Social Security’s language by using these work activity terms

   If you suffer with a chronic pain condition, maintain a pain diary in which you make note of your level of pain on a daily basis on a calendar.  Your calendar and notes can serve as valuable evidence to help a judge understand what you are going through.

   Finally, do not forget that the work limitations can also arise from side effects of the medications you are taking because of pain.  If you have been prescribed powerful pain medication, make note of the side effects like drowsiness, poor concentration and listlessness as these side effects can create significant work limitations as well.

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