Can You Get Disability for Degenerative Disc Disease and IVDS?
Yes, sort of. You want to see a doctor with a good knowledge of VA disability ratings. There are several different kinds of back disabilities that can earn a VA disability rating. IVDS is one of the more difficult, while radiculopathy or ankylosis is easier. Injuries such as radiculopathy don’t depend so much on the pain in your back as they depend on the paralysis in your hands and feet. Ankylosis can be diagnosed with X-Rays and no other symptoms of pain or tenderness.
In This Article About IVDS and Spinal Fusion
- Can You Get Disability for Degenerative Disc Disease and IVDS?
- What Is IVDS?
- What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
- How does Spinal Fusion Happen?
- Is Favorable Ankylosis Better than Unfavorable Ankylosis?
- Other Conditions That Come With Fused Vertebrae
- What Are the VA Ratings for Ankylosis, Favorable or Unfavorable?
- Combined Range of Motion vs Flexion of 60%
- Flexion isn’t Just about Bending Over
- Muscle Guarding and Abnormal Curves of the Spine
- We know VA Disability Law can be a Pain in the Neck
- More about VA Disability for Spine and Back Pain
VA Disability ratings concerning your back fall into a few different groups:
Brain and Spinal Cord Disabilities (38 CFR § 4.124a)
- Peripheral Neuropathy
- Drop foot due to nerve damage
- Intervertebral Disc Syndrome (this will be on both lists!)
- Upper, Middle, and Lower spine paralysis
Spine Disabilities (38 CFR § 4.71a)
- Favorable and Unfavorable Ankylosis
- Spinal Fusion
- Intervertebral Disc Syndrome (here it is again!)
- Degenerative Arthritis of the Spine
- Sacroiliac Injury or Weakness
- Disabling spinal contours like being hunchback or kyphosis
Your rating and diagnosis will depend on what is affected, your full measure of symptoms, and what affects your daily life the most. The VA is required to give you the highest rating you deserve for your symptoms, so if a 50% Sacroiliac injury looks the same as a 30% rheumatoid arthritis claim, they are required to give you the 50%. Even after you get your rating decision, run it by some certified VA lawyers to catch any mistakes the VA made with your records. We have recovered entitlements for clients after the VA made a wrong decision decades ago!
What Is IVDS?
Intervertebral Disc Syndrome (IVDS) is a disability in which parts of your spine break or move and put your nerves or other parts of your spine in the wrong spot. There are a lot of other ailments that are classified under IVDS, and you may have better luck getting one of those service-connected instead of general IVDS. Your spinal discs are critical to the padding between your vertebrae. As they fail, the nerves they protect can cause numbness, pain, or paralysis in your hands and feet. Those nerves can also affect your digestive system, bowels, the whole bit down there.
Those symptoms can also point to diabetes, carpal tunnel syndrome, or arthritis, so you’ll need some X-Rays and CT scans on your back to see what is going on in there. It can show up between multiple vertebrae, so your doctor can split up your diagnosis into multiple regions. That’s why the VA law says:
When the VA rates IVDS, they rate it based on incapacitating episodes. Doctors are currently disagreeing about bed rest and IVDS, but here is how the VA rates those times you are put flat on your back from IVDS pain.
|How Many Incapacitating Episodes You Have From IVDS||Your VA Rating|
|With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least 6 weeks during the past 12 months||60% VA Disability Rating|
|With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least 4 weeks but less than 6 weeks during the past 12 months||40% VA Disability Rating|
|With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least 2 weeks but less than 4 weeks during the past 12 months||20% VA Disability Rating|
|With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least one week but less than 2 weeks during the past 12 months||10% VA Disability Rating|
You can see that IVDS ratings are all riding on the number of time your back pain is so severe that you are laid out. Other back issues are rating according to different criteria.
What is Degenerative Disc Disease?
Degenerative Disc Disease is a condition in which the shock absorbers between your vertebrae — the bones in your back — wear out due to age, wear and tear, or other illness. Just like driving a truck with bad shocks, that bumpy ride on your back wears out the equipment really quick. As your backbones bang together, pieces can chip off and cause even more pain and problems. This can all be amplified by long caravans on bumpy roads, carrying 100 pounds of the world’s lightest equipment every day.
You actually can’t get VA Disability for DDD. You get the rating for other conditions that fall under that category based on pain, restricted movement, or the nervous system problems mentioned above. Degenerative Disc Disease is a normal part of aging for a huge percentage of the population, so you’ll have to prove your back injuries are service-connected. Any sorts of spine surgery while in the service, injuries that affected your back like falls or impacts, and events like car wrecks can all point to spine and back service-connected injuries.
How does Spinal Fusion Happen?
Spinal fusion can happen naturally or surgically. When the discs between your vertebrae wear out and cause all of these problems, sometimes a surgeon will fuse two or more of your vertebrae together. This prevents pinched nerves, slipped discs, and other IVDS problems. Ankylosis is what this is called when the bones do it themselves. An injury or being in a long-term sedentary state can aggravate your joints and make them fuse together. This is Favorable or Unfavorable Ankylosis.
Is Favorable Ankylosis Better than Unfavorable Ankylosis?
Yes it is. The favorable or unfavorable part refers to what position you are stuck in. They both refer to your back being stuck in a way that you can’t move around. Favorable means that your stuck standing straight up. Your backbones might be fused together or about to be because of ankylosis, but you at least look normal when you stand or sit. Unfavorable ankylosis is when your stuck bent over in any direction. Some veterans are bent over sideways but can still walk around with a cane. Other people are bent over frontwards with a ‘hunchback’ type of posture. Any direction of stiffness that is not straight up is considered unfavorable ankylosis.
Ankylosis can occur anywhere in your body where there is a joint. The VA can give you a rating for unfavorable ankylosis of the thumb and any finger. We’ll address that elsewhere, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus only on the back.
Unfavorable Ankylosis does bring in higher VA Ratings than favorable. For instance, the VA rating for favorable ankylosis of the entire cervical spine is 30%. The VA rating for unfavorable ankylosis of the entire cervical spine is 40%. The difference is more than $2,200 per year!
It is better for your health to be diagnosed with favorable ankylosis but if you are diagnosed with unfavorable, you’ll get more money to help you out.
Other Conditions That Come With Fused Vertebrae
If the shock absorbers are removed you won’t have space to pinch nerves. The problem that develops later, though, is that the rest of your vertebrae are picking up the slack and absorbing more shock. You need to see your doctor at least yearly to check on your back. That extra wear and tear on your other discs will make them deteriorate faster and require more future care.
From a VA disability perspective, this can help you get a permanent rating. It also means that every few years you should check with the VA to see if you can get an increased rating. Back surgery will cause your rating to increase temporarily, but the permanent or even total rating will help you not have to go back to work. Every back pain claim should be reviewed as a possible TDIU claim. If you aren’t using a certified VA disability lawyer like Woods and Woods, make sure you, your VSO, or your friend at the American Legion don’t overlook that point. You don’t want to miss out on the full benefit that you deserve.
What Are the VA Ratings for Ankylosis, Favorable or Unfavorable?
One of the nice things about these VA ratings is that they do not require you to have pain, radiculopathy, stiffness, or even aches. They can be diagnosed and proven with X-Rays and MRIs long before you show any incapacitating symptoms.
Most veterans with ankylosis don’t get much over 50%. The VA only gives a 50% rating if you have unfavorable ankylosis of the entire thoracolumbar spine. That means everything from the middle of your backpack and bra strap down. If you add in the rest of your back, so that your entire back is fused in an unfavorable position, you’ll be eligible for 100%.
As with most back disabilities, the VA puts a lot on the level of flexion you have. You’ll be measured at your C&P exam to see how much you can bend at the waist and at the neck. You’ll bend forward and backward as well as side to side, and every measurement matters. You’ll want to try your hardest, but be honest with the doctor about where you feel pain or numbness in your arms and legs.
|Your Back Pain Symptoms||VA Rating|
|Forward flexion of the thoracolumbar spine up to 85 degrees or of the cervical spine up to 40 degrees. OR the combined range of motion at 120-235 degrees for thoracolumbar or 170-335 degrees for cervical. This level can also have muscle spasms, muscle guarding, and pain without abnormal gait or curves.||10% Disability Rating|
|This level is basically less flexion: 30-60 degrees of flexion for the lower to middle back and 15-30 degrees for your neck. Combined thoracolumbar less than 120° or cervical combined less than 170° or muscle spasms or guarding enough to cause abnormal gait or an abnormal contour of your spine.||20% Disability Rating|
|Cervical spine forward flexion of 15° or less or favorable ankylosis of the entire cervical spine||30% Disability Rating|
|Unfavorable ankylosis of the entire cervical spine, forward flexion of thoracolumbar spine of 30° or less, or favorable ankylosis of the entire thoracolumbar spine area.||40% Disability Rating|
Combined Range of Motion vs Flexion of 60%
When the doctor measures your flexion, he or she is going to measure your angle of movement before you experience pain. When you hurt or feel numb, tell your doctor that you’ve reached the limit. Each direction, forward, backward, left, and right will get an angle of flexion measurement. Many of the angles in the chart above relate to forward flexion. This is how much you can bend over forward. The combined range of motion, however, is found by adding your degree of flexion in all four directions.
For a 20% VA Disability rating, you have to have less than 120 degrees of combined flexion in your thoracolumbar spine. That sounds like your lower back has to move less than 30° in each direction since 30°+30°+30°+30°=120°. The reality of that math (thank goodness it isn’t VA Math!) is that most veterans that don’t add up have one or two directions of flexion that are OK and two other directions that are impossible. You might be able to lean right and left 30° just fine. That is considered normal. But if you can’t bend over the normal 90° or bend back the normal 30°, you are already getting close to that 120° total.
Flexion isn’t Just about Bending Over
Flexion is how they add up your degrees of movement, as you can see in the diagram below.
Twisting at the hips is also counted in your movement as part of your thoracolumbar spine. Lateral flexion is leaning right and left but rotation is also measured. If you have a limitation of motion that only applies to how you can twist, note that if you have full thoracolumbar motion forward, sideways, and backward, that is only going to add up to 180° of total motion without some rotation.
That means, depending on your pain and other symptoms, you can have full movement without rotation in your lower back and still be eligible for a 10% VA rating. Fused pieces or loose pieces of bone in your back can all affect your ability to twist around. Your diagnosis and rating may not be permanent, since you may be able to gain movement again with physical therapy or surgery, but you can at least get awarded for 5-10 years before being called for a review.
Muscle Guarding and Abnormal Curves of the Spine
Muscle guarding is a reflex of your muscles to tense up in anticipation of something. Like your legs tense up when you’re about to land from a parachute jump, or the way your stomach tenses when a truck or an airplane is about to land. If your back does this when you move, your back is guarding. The problem is when this happens just by walking, sitting, or moving around normally. Muscle guarding can happen to resist pain or other signals from the sensory nerves in your back.
Muscle guarding gone wrong can cause a number of disorders in your back. Your back can even go into an abnormal contour, which simply means it’s bending in ways it isn’t supposed to.
Here one of our VA disability lawyers goes over the questions Woods and Woods, The Veteran’s Firm, is often asked about veterans’ disability claims and appeals.
Abnormal Contours of the Spine
These all involve the back bending in ways that it shouldn’t. Abnormal contours can cause problems in digestion, breathing, circulation, bowel movements, and more. Each of those additional problems might carry their own VA rating, so get ready for some VA math!
We know VA Disability Law can be a Pain in the Neck
Contact us today for a free review of your case to make sure you are getting treated fairly by the VA. We’ll foot the bill for our fees and only charge part of your back pay and the fees after we win your case. You have nothing to risk except knowing that you had professionals working hard on your case.
Frequently Asked Questions about VA Disability for IVDS and Spinal Fusion:
Maybe. There are a lot of things like falls, impacts, heavy lifting, and other activities that can be service-connected to your injury. We’ll look through your medical records to see any history that points to your back injury.
You always have other options. Call us and we’ll send you self-addressed, postage-paid envelopes to send in your decision letters. We can look them over to see what other options you have.
VA Ratings are based on your flexion, or how far you can bend your neck, or they are based on the paralysis in your hands and feet because of your spine problems. See a doctor familiar with VA disability to explore your symptoms more fully.