A bulging disc can occur due to the natural degeneration of a spinal disc or from physical injury. Because the deformation in the disc can protrude into the spinal canal, it can press on nerves. The resulting pain, numbness, discomfort, and weakness can provide a basis for obtaining a VA disability rating for a bulging disc.
In This Article About Bulging Disc VA Disability Ratings:
- A Variety of Symptoms Can Support a VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
- Medical Testing is Needed to Receive a VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
- Establishing a Service Connection for a VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
- Increasing Your VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
- A VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc Can Face Obstacles
A Variety of Symptoms Can Support a VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
The spine includes bones –called vertebrae – that are separated and cushioned by discs. These discs are not made from bones, but rather have a fibrous ring that protects a rubbery nucleus. The purpose of the discs is to provide flexibility in the spine so you can bend front-to-back, lean side-to-side, and twist. The discs also act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae, so they do not grind against one another. It’s easy to see how you could have back pain from discs bulging or moving around.
A bulging disc, also called a prolapsed disc, occurs when the fibrous ring loses its structural integrity and becomes deformed. A bulging disc is caused by the deterioration of the fibrous ring due to age, injury, or overuse. Specifically, the discs dry up and harden as we age. Loss of back flexibility among older people is often caused, at least partly, by the hardening of spinal discs. This loss of cushioning can make discs prone to deforming when you lift, twist, or bend.
Bulging discs can also occur in young people. Some people have a genetic disposition toward spinal discs that are prone to damage. However, most young people with bulging discs have damaged them due to physical activity. Lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling heavy loads can all lead to bulging discs. Likewise, strenuous exercise, accidental falls, and vehicle collisions can cause enough stress to spinal discs, so much that they bulge. In short, many of the activities required of active service members can cause or contribute to a bulging disc.
Occasionally, discs will bulge without any symptoms. However, there is not much space in the spine for the discs to deform. As a result, most bulging discs will push into the spinal canal.
Your spinal cord runs through the spinal canal. A bulging disc that presses on the spinal cord can cause a variety of symptoms that may not necessarily suggest a back problem. For example, depending on the location and severity of the bulging disc, symptoms may be felt in the hands, arms, shoulders, neck, legs, feet, or buttocks. The symptoms may range in severity, from tingling to numbness or severe pain. Because the lumbar spine (the portion of the spine in the lower back) supports most of your weight, it is more prone to a bulging disc than your cervical spine (the portion of the spine in your upper back and neck).
In addition to nerve pain, a bulging disc can also cause muscle spasms, muscle weakness, or loss of muscle control. For example, incontinence or difficulty walking can result from a bulging disc that presses on nerves running to the bladder or legs, respectively.
How the VA’s Combined Rating Table works:
If left untreated or undetected, a bulging disc can evolve into a herniated disc. A herniated disc occurs when the fibrous ring ruptures and the inner nucleus pushes out of the disc. When the herniated nucleus presses on the nerves in the spinal canal, it can produce the same symptoms as a bulging disc. For this reason, the VA does not differentiate between bulging discs and herniated discs. Rather, they are all lumped together as “Intervertebral Disc Syndrome” or IVDS in the VA regulations and forms.
A herniated disk is the same as a herniated disc. The two words are used interchangably throughout the medical and legal community.
Consequently, diagnosis of a bulging disc, herniated disc, or other disc degeneration will not affect a VA disability rating. So long as the diagnosis relates to a deformed or damaged disc in some way, the disability should fit within the definition of IVDS under the VA’s rules and will be rated accordingly.
Medical Testing is Needed to Receive a VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
To receive a VA disability rating for a bulging disc, you need both a diagnosis of a deformed disc and medical testing to establish the severity of the disc problem. When the disability arises from degenerated, bulging, or herniated discs, the VA will apply its rating criteria for both general spine injuries and IVDS. This is an important benefit for service members suffering from disc problems because your VA disability benefits will be based on the formula that gives the higher disability rating. For example, if your disability rating under the general spine injury formula is 30% and your disability rating under the IVDS formula is 60%, your rating for purposes of VA disability benefits is 60%.
One of our Certified VA Lawyers talks about what you should do during your C&P Exam:
Under the general rating formula, the emphasis is placed on measurements of ankylosis (the degree to which vertebrae have fused together) and range of motion (ROM). Less ankylosis and greater ROM will translate into a lower VA disability rating for your bulging or herniated disc. Conversely, more ankylosis and less ROM will translate into a higher VA disability rating.
Use our VA disability calculator to estimate your
combined VA rating and monthly payment
The ROM measurements are taken by a physician as you are asked to bend, lean, and twist your body or head in each direction for a total of six measurements. The VA disability rating for a bulging disc is based on both the individual ROM measurements and the total ROM. If the ROM is improperly measured or recorded, your VA bulging disc disability rating will be wrong, and your disability benefits will be incorrect. If your spine is frozen in position, your VA disability rating is based on whether the frozen position is favorable or unfavorable based on the ROM baseline position.
Under the IVDS rating formula, the emphasis is placed on the number of incapacitating episodes that have resulted from the bulging or herniated disc. For example, a 60% VA disability rating is assigned if doctors prescribed at least six weeks of bed rest due to your damaged disc over the past year.
As with any VA disability claim, these measurements can be collected by a military doctor, VA doctor, or private doctor. When they are performed by a private doctor, you will need to include the doctor’s records with your disability claim.
Establishing a Service Connection for a VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
Obtaining a bulging disc VA disability rating is in some ways easier than it would be for many other medical conditions. Many physical activities can lead to a bulging or herniated disc, including many of the activities you performed while serving in the military. Even PT can lead to, or worsen, a bulging disc. Any medical records that indicate you suffered back problems while serving can be used to establish a service connection to your disability.
Moreover, if you were injured in any training accident, motor vehicle collision, or other incidents, your bulging disc may have been caused –or made worse – by the incident. Any service records that establish these incidents can support a connection between your disability and your military service.
There are three ways to connect your disability to your service:
1. Condition Worsened by Service
If your condition existed when you joined the service, but deteriorated during your time in the military, you may be able to connect your service to your disability. The easiest way to show that your condition worsened is through medical records from your time in the service. These records can establish the frequency and severity of problems stemming from your bulging or herniated disc throughout your time in the military. If the records establish that your condition declined quicker than the natural progression of your bulging disc, the records can be used to show that your military service contributed to the worsening of your condition.
One way to show that the worsening of your condition was not a natural progression is by pointing to a specific occurrence that contributed to your bulging or herniated disc. For example, if you injured your back in a fall, you may be able to point to this incident as worsening an existing back condition.
2. In-service Disability
If your bulging or herniated disc was diagnosed while serving, it is, most likely, a service-connected disability. This is the easiest way to establish a service connection for purposes of a VA disability claim.
The main issue that arises when establishing a bulging disc as an in-service disability is whether you can also establish secondary service-connected disabilities that arise from the bulging disc. For example, if you undisputedly suffered a bulging or herniated disc during your military service, it may be possible to establish that weakness and pain in your legs that arose from the bulging disc are secondary service-related disabilities as well. However, to obtain a disability rating for the leg conditions, the VA may require records showing a sufficient relationship between the two for a secondary disability rating.
3. Disability Diagnosed After Discharge
The most difficult pathway to obtaining a disability rating is by presenting evidence of a disability that was diagnosed after your honorable discharge, but that you contend occurred during your service. Disabilities for which the VA provides benefits do not necessarily require diagnosis during your military service. However, they do require some manifestation during your service.
If, for example, your bulging disc was misdiagnosed by a military doctor as back strain, this misdiagnosis does not necessarily prevent you from obtaining disability benefits. Evidence would need to be presented to the VA to show that the condition was misdiagnosed. However, if it can be established through later evidence and testimony that the bulging disc was sustained while serving, the VA can issue a disability rating.
VA disability attorney explains VA ratings for back pain and back injuries:
Increasing Your VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc
A fair VA disability rating for a service-connected disability should account for all the health problems suffered. There are various ways that the VA can rate a disability like a bulging disc too low. One way is by misapplying the rating criteria. As mentioned above, disc problems are rated on both the general spine scale and the IVDS scale. If the VA fails to rate your disability on one of the scales, you may miss out on a higher VA disability rating.
Moreover, if you have multiple deteriorated discs, you may be able to obtain a VA disability rating for each disc. Specifically, if you have a bulging or herniated disc in your lumbar spine region and a bulging or herniated disc in your cervical spine region, you are entitled to a separate rating for each. However, be aware that these VA disability percentages for a bulging disc are subject to VA math. This means that a 30% rating for a lumbar disc and a 30% rating for a cervical disc will not result in 60% disability. Rather, according to the VA’s calculations, you would be entitled to 50% disability for two 30% ratings.
Use our VA disability calculator to estimate your
combined VA rating and monthly payment
Also, as mentioned above, you may be able to obtain a higher rating by including all secondary disabilities that arose from your bulging or herniated disc. Pain, muscle weakness, and loss of muscle control can all stem from a bulging or herniated disc. Because these problems can severely impact both your quality of life and ability to hold a job, you should make sure they are included on any disability application.
Finally, in rare cases, you can request a special rating if you do not believe that the rating criteria sufficiently account for your circumstances. For example, if your condition involves additional symptoms or conditions not addressed by the rating criteria, you may be able to request an extra-schedular evaluation. Be aware, however, that these ratings are very rarely granted. If you believe your condition justifies a special rating request, you may benefit from a consultation with a VA benefits lawyer so you understand the evidence required and the legal standard that will be applied to your request.
A VA Disability Rating for a Bulging Disc Can Face Obstacles
Although physical injuries are often easier to connect to your service, they can still face a number of obstacles when obtaining a fair VA disability rating. For example, the ROM measurements and the favorable or unfavorable position of a frozen spine are performed using a goniometer. Not every doctor is familiar with the technique for using this device to produce accurate and repeatable results. The result could be a veterans’ disability rating that does not reflect your true medical condition.
Additionally, the use of a goniometer depends on your condition on the day of measurement. If your condition is relatively stable, this may not be an issue. However, if your condition improves and declines periodically, your measurements may not reflect the true extent of your ROM. Worse yet, the measurements obtained through a goniometer depend on the pain you experience as you undergo the testing. Measuring your ROM on a day where you feel less pain could result in a VA disability rating that is too low.
Here is a video of what you’ll experience during a goniometer test at your C&P Exam:
If your VA disability rating is too low, you are allowed to challenge the rating. As a result of changes to the VA’s decision review procedures, you may be able to obtain a quicker review than in the past. This is the case whether you need to submit additional evidence to dispute the rating or if you merely believe that the VA misapplied its regulations when assigning a rating.
Throughout the process, you should consider whether you need assistance in preparing and filing your VA disability claim. VA lawyers are familiar with the laws, procedures, and practices of the VA and can help you to present the best possible case for your disability claim. In many cases, presenting the right records and testimony and making the right claims and arguments can make an enormous difference in navigating the VA’s bureaucracy.
A fair VA disability rating for a bulging disc can be obtained by presenting solid medical records that fit the timing for a service-connected disability. However, if these records are lacking, obtaining a higher disability rating can be difficult. A VA attorney who is familiar with the VA and its procedures can help you to place your claim in the best condition for approval regardless of whether you were deployed or where you are currently located.
No, it is not too late. There is a period of one year after discharge that makes your disability claim easier, but many service-connected disabilities don’t show up for years. We handle late-onset claims every day.
If you favor one leg or another from a service-connected injury, you can almost be certain that you’ll have back problems someday. This secondary-connected condition can also carry a VA rating if it was caused by your abnormal gait.
Yes, you can apply for multiple back disabilities, but you’ll only be granted one rating. The VA is required to give you whichever rating is the highest, so make sure you work with an experienced VA lawyer to know the best route to take.