Facts about Lumbar Fusion and Filing for Disability
These selected pages answer some of the most basic, but also some of the most important, questions for individuals who are considering filing a claim for disability benefits.
Facts about the condition
1) Lumbar fusion is a surgery used to fuse together two or more vertebrae to eliminate pain, abnormal motion in the spine, tingling, weakness, numbness, and restore nerve function. It can be done in the front or the back of the spine.
2) Some of the most common reasons for lumbar fusion include spinal tumor, degenerative disk disease, vertebral fracture, spinal disc herniation, and scoliosis, though it may be performed due to other reasons.
3) There are different types of lumbar fusion. The two main types are prosterolaeral fusion and interbody fusion. There are three types of interbody fusion: ALIF (anterior lumbar interbody fusion), PLIF (posterior lumbar interbody fusion), and TLIF (transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion). Using both posterolateral fusion and interbody fusion is called 360-degree fusion.
4) Lumbar fusion can be quite an invasive surgery with long recovery times, though newer, minimally invasive techniques are being created all the time.
5) Even though vertebrae are being fused together, which should limit movement of the spine, most patients will not notice a movement restriction. If three or more vertebrae are fused together, there is a higher chance that pain will not be eliminated due to too much stress on the joints.
6) Artificial disc replacement is slowly being used in place of lumbar fusion, though it has not gained widespread popularity. During artificial disc replacement the vertebrae are replaced with artificial discs that allow movement, instead of the fusing the vertebrae together.
7) There is always a risk to any surgery and lumbar fusion is no exception. Complications can include distended abdomen, wound infection, urinary issues post surgery such as urinary tract infection and urinary retention, phlebitis in the legs, and blood clots in the lungs. Those who smoke are at a higher risk for the complication of pseudoarthrosis. There is always the chance that pain is not relieved after surgery. Although it is rare, some people may fail to improve and become paralyzed or even die.
Qualifying for disability benefits with this condition
Whether or not you qualify for disability and, as a result, are approved for disability benefits will depend entirely on the information obtained from your medical records.
This includes whatever statements and treatment notes that may have been obtained from your treating physician (a doctor who has a history of treating your condition and is, therefore, qualified to comment as to your condition and prognosis). It also includes discharge summaries from hospital stays, reports of imaging studies (such as xrays, MRIs, and CT scans) and lab panels (i.e. bloodwork) as well as reports from physical therapy.
In many disability claims, it may also include the results of a report issued by an independent physician who examines you at the request of the Social Security Administration.
Qualifying for SSD or SSI benefits will also depend on the information obtained from your vocational, or work, history if you are an adult, or academic records if you are a minor-age child. In the case of adults, your work history information will allow a disability examiner (examiners make decisions at the initial claim and reconsideration appeal levels, but not at the hearing level where a judges decides the outcome of the case) to A) classify your past work, B) determine the physical and mental demands of your past work, C) decide if you can go back to a past job, and D) whether or not you have the ability to switch to some type of other work.
The important thing to keep in mind is that the social security administration does not award benefits based on simply having a condition, but, instead, will base an approval or denial on the extent to which a condition causes functional limitations. Functional limitations can be great enough to make work activity not possible (or, for a child, make it impossible to engage in age-appropriate activities).
Why are so many disability cases lost at the disability application and reconsideration appeal levels?
There are several reasons but here are just two:
1) Social Security makes no attempt to obtain a statement from a claimant's treating physician. By contrast, at the hearing level, a claimant's disability attorney or disability representative will generally obtain and present this type of statement to a judge.
Note: it is not enough for a doctor to simply state that their patient is disabled. To satisy Social Security's requirements, the physician must list in what ways and to what extent the individual is functionally limited. For this reason, many representatives and attorneys request that the physician fill out and sign a specialized medical source statement that captures the correct information. Solid Supporting statements from physicians easily make the difference between winning or losing a disability case at the hearing level.
2) Prior to the hearing level, a claimant will not have the opportunity to explain how their condition limits them, nor will their attorney or representative have the opportunity to make a presentation based on the evidence of the case. This is because at the initial levels of the disability system, a disability examiner decides the case without meeting the claimant. The examiner may contact the claimant to gather information on activities of daily living and with regard to medical treatment or past jobs, but usually nothing more. At the hearing level, however, presenting an argument for approval based on medical evidence that has been obtained and submitted is exactly what happens.
About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.
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