Back and neck injuries are common in the military because of the extremely physical nature of the work service members do. The VA rates back and neck injuries and diseases by how much the spine is affected and the severity of movement loss. Veterans can also receive disability benefits by providing evidence their back or neck injury caused another condition. Neurological disorders and bowel or bladder disorders fall into this category.
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Back pain caused by military service can limit a veteran’s ability to carry out even the most common life tasks. Bending down to tie a shoe or sitting in a chair can become a painful, physically-challenging exercise. In severe cases, veterans can lose mobility and face diseases tied to their back injury including numbness and bowel and bladder issues.
VA disability benefits for service-connected back pain depend on the severity of movement loss. Wearing a neck or back brace or proving a separate condition comes from a service-connected neck or back disability can also factor into monthly disability benefits.
What are VA ratings for back pain?
The VA ratings for back pain reflect the seriousness of a veteran’s mobility loss and how much the spine is affected.
Back injuries are rated using the General Rating Formula for Diseases and Injuries of the Spine in the Schedule of Ratings. The ratings consider:
- Degree of flexion (the ability to bend)
- If the veteran is experiencing unfavorable ankylosis (if the entire spine is fixed and movement is limited) or favorable ankylosis (if a spinal segment is fixed in a neutral position)
- If the problem is in the thoracolumbar spine (upper and middle region of the spine extending from the neck down to the rib cage) or cervical spine (neck region)
|Description||VA Disability Rating|
|Unfavorable ankylosis of the entire thoracolumbar spine||50%|
|Unfavorable ankylosis of the entire cervical spine OR|
Forward flexion of the thoracolumbar spine 30 degrees or less OR
Favorable ankylosis of the entire thoracolumbar spine
|Forward flexion of the cervical spine 15 degrees or less OR|
Favorable ankylosis of the entire cervical spine
|Forward flexion of the thoracolumbar spine greater than 30 degrees but not greater than 60 degrees OR the following:|
Forward flexion of the cervical spine greater than 15 degrees but not greater than 30 degrees
The combined range of motion of the thoracolumbar spine but not greater than 120 degrees
A combined range of motion of the cervical spine not greater than 170 degrees
Muscle spasm or guarding severe enough to result in an abnormal gait or abnormal spinal contour (i.e. scoliosis, etc.)
|Forward flexion of the thoracolumbar spine greater than 60 degrees but not greater than 85 degrees OR the following:|
Forward flexion of the cervical spine greater than 30 degrees but not greater than 40 degrees
Combined range of motion of the thoracolumbar spine greater than 120 degrees but not greater than 170 degrees but not greater than 335 degrees
Muscle spasm, guarding or localized tenderness not affecting gait or spinal contour
Vertebral body fracture with loss of 50% or more of height
What conditions cause back pain?
Back pain stems from various conditions and injuries, which can worsen over time or as veterans age. The VA evaluates conditions affecting only one portion of the spine separately.
The following conditions are listed as diagnostic codes 5235-5243 in the Schedule for Rating Disabilities:
|Vertebral fracture or dislocation||A break to any portion of the spine or when the spine is out of line or place|
|Sacroiliac injury and weakness||Injuries to the joints linking the pelvis to the lower spine (sacroiliac)|
|Lumbosacral or cervical strain||Strain in the area between the 5th lumbar vertebra (L5) through the 1st sacral vertebra (S1)|
|Spinal stenosis||Narrowing of the spinal column causing pressure on the spinal cord and nerves|
|Spondylolistehesis or segmental instability||Occurs when one vertebra slips out of position onto a vertebra below it|
|Ankylosing spondylitis||Arthritis in the spine that causes the spinal joints to freeze in place|
|Spinal fusion||A naturally occurring condition or a surgical procedure that permanently connects vertebrae, limiting motion in the spine and back|
|Degenerative arthritis, degenerative disc disease||When discs between the vertebrae lose cushioning|
|Intervertebral disc syndrome||Only rated with medical proof of nerve irritation because of a displaced disc fragment|
What conditions are secondary to back pain?
Some veterans who are service connected for a back injury are later diagnosed with radiculopathy, a condition that causes tingling, pain, or numbness. This is an example of a situation in which a veteran can receive benefits for a secondary service connection. When a condition that was caused or aggravated by activity during military service leads to another condition, that condition is eligible for benefits.
When assigning a rating for radiculopathy, the VA will take into account which nerve is affected, as well as whether the radiculopathy affects the dominant hand or leg and the severity of the symptoms, such as numbness, tingling, sensory changes, and functional impact.
Lumbar spine radiculopathy can also result in a condition known as foot drop, which is rated from 10 to 40%.
How to qualify for higher VA ratings for back pain?
The VA rates back pain based on how much of the spine, or range of motion, is affected.
“In addition to range of motion scores and medical findings like ankylosis, the VA has to consider the severity of a veteran’s functional loss,” said Cecilia Santostefano, a VA-certified disability benefits lawyer. “Functional loss refers to any impairment in a veteran’s functioning due to a service-connected back or neck disability. Making the VA aware of the severity of your functional loss could trigger the VA to assign a higher rating.”
Veterans also might not have to show an actual medical finding of ankylosis. If a veteran’s condition requires a neck or back brace that could be considered the functional equivalent to ankylosis. For example, braces help a veteran’s stability, but while wearing the brace, their back may be stuck in an upright position, which could be the functional equivalent of ankylosis.
The VA also factors in conditions related to back or neck disabilities. Neurological disabilities that can be tied to a veteran’s back or neck pain must receive a separate rating. As we discussed earlier, radiculopathy is a common neurological disability stemming from back or neck injuries. The VA also requires that bowel and bladder incontinence and impairment receive a separate rating.
How to get a 100% rating for back pain
A 100% rating is given when the entire spine is immovable because of a back injury. However, more commonly, veterans are able to achieve a 100% rating through a combination of back and neck injury ratings and other conditions. Often, nerve issues can arise from back or neck conditions and cause a veteran to lose mobility of their feet and hands.
The VA considers back issues in the lumbar spine separate from the cervical spine. A veteran with issues with both portions of the spine could get a rating for a back condition and a neck condition.
Veterans with a severe neck or back condition may be entitled to total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU).
TDIU, which pays at the same rate as a 100% rating, is given to veterans with service-connected conditions that prevent them from keeping substantially gainful employment. A veteran must have at least one service-connected disability rated at least at 60%, or two or more service-connected disabilities with a combined rating of 70% or more, including one single disability rated at 40% or more.
“One way to find out if you could be entitled to this benefit is to look at your functional limitations,” Santostefano said. “The VA has to consider impairments in standing, sitting, bending, climbing stairs, grasping, and carrying objects, for example, because those are common work tasks.”
Are VA benefits for back pain permanent?
To establish that a disability is permanent, a veteran will need medical records and opinions stating that the disability will be unchanged or worsen during the remainder of their life. Because these conditions are not typically considered to be permanent in nature, VA may schedule re-examinations every few years to determine the severity of the back or neck condition.
Filing a claim for VA benefits
If you have back pain as a result of your military service, you can file a claim for VA disability benefits. You will need to provide evidence linking the cause to your time in service.
If you would like help with your claim, contact the team at Woods and Woods for guidance. We never charge veterans for help filing the initial application. Our team works diligently to submit your application correctly, allowing you to avoid the lengthy VA disability appeals process.
Hiring a veterans benefits attorney
The Woods and Woods team works hard to stay on top of disability benefit changes and develop innovative case strategies. We’re proud to have represented thousands of veterans with a comprehensive team of lawyers, case managers, and legal analysts.
Contact us and start your application today.
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
The VA ratings for back pain reflect the seriousness of a veteran’s mobility loss and how much their spine is affected. The ratings also factor in whether a veteran feels pain, stiffness, or aching in their spine. To receive a 30% rating or above, a veteran must prove ankylosis, which is joint stiffness caused by an injury or a disease. Fixed movement of the entire spine qualifies for a 100% rating.
A veteran receives a 100% rating if their entire spine is immovable because of a back injury. However, more commonly, veterans are able to achieve a 100% rating through a combination of back and neck injury ratings and other conditions.