Can You Get Disability After Back Surgery?

Back problems, and how they interfere with one’s ability to work, are some of the most common reasons people apply for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). In fact, the SSA’s annual report on the disability benefits program for 2019 found that most disabled workers belonged to the “musculoskeletal system and connective tissue” category of diseases. Back pain, trunk pain, and spinal disorders are very common conditions in this group.

If you suffer from back pain and receive back surgery to correct it, you may be wondering if you’re able to collect disability benefits afterward. Because back pain is so subjective, or personal, there’s no singular answer to this question that will apply to everyone.

However, we’ll explain common types of back surgeries, qualifying for disability, and receiving benefits post-back surgery below. If you need further help understanding your disability benefits and options in Tennessee, contact The Law Offices of Michael Hartup. Call our Jackson office at 731-424-5559 or fill out an online form to get started.

Meeting the SSA’s Definition of Disability

No matter your type of back pain or back surgery you receive, you must meet the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) definition of disability in order to qualify for benefits.

Qualifying as disabled, according to the Social Security Act, means you:

  • Cannot work due to severe medical condition that has lasted (or is expected to) more than 1 year or result in death
  • The condition must prevent you from doing work you did in the past
  • The condition must prevent you from adjusting to other work

If you have a specific impairment that prevents you from working, the SSA may automatically approve you for benefits. The SSA’s list of impairments does include some back problems such as lumbar spinal stenosis, or conditions that may affect back function like multiple sclerosis. 

However, back surgery alone is not something that will automatically grant you disability benefits. Your underlying back problems and pain resulting from surgery would be evaluated to see if you qualify.

Common Types of Back Surgery

Back pain is extremely common, and nonsurgical treatment often includes anti-inflammatory medications, hot or cold packs, physical therapy, or lifestyle changes. Back surgery is often used as a last resort to improve or repair the issue, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always work to relieve pain completely. 

The following types of back surgeries may be selected to relieve pain caused by serious musculoskeletal injuries, nerve compression, or worsening nerve damage. 

Spinal laminectomy, or spinal decompression

Also called spinal decompression, spinal laminectomy is performed when the spinal canal narrows and causes pain, numbness, or weakness. It is the most common surgery for lumbar spinal stenosis. The procedure involves removing parts of bone, bone spurs, or ligaments to relieve pressure on spinal nerves.

Spinal fusion

Spinal fusion involves permanently fusing, or connecting, two or more bones in your spine. This relieves pain by making a spinal fracture more stable and preventing painful movements. It’s commonly recommended for people with degenerative disc disease or spondylolisthesis. It can limit motion between the two vertebrae that are fused.


Disks are cushions that separate each vertebrae. If a disk slips out of place, it can irritate or inflame a nerve and cause pain. A discectomy relieves pain by removing all or part of the disk. Sometimes discectomies are performed with other surgeries such as laminectomies or spinal fusion.

Disk replacement

In disk replacement surgery, a damaged spinal disk is removed and an artificial one is inserted between your vertebrae. The artificial disk restores height and movement. Disk replacement may be chosen as an alternative to spinal fusion.

The recovery period from back surgery can take months at minimum. Surgery is not always successful; a person can suffer from loss of mobility or flexibility, as well as continue to experience chronic pain.

Receiving Benefits After Back Surgery

If back surgery fails to relieve your pain, or makes it worse, you’re likely still unable to work. The SSA will evaluate your symptoms and the likelihood your impairment will improve in order to decide whether you qualify for benefits.

Again, there is no specific listing for back surgery that automatically approves you for benefits. But if the surgery failed to correct your back impairment, you might be able to show that your functioning is limited by your back problems.

Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment

If you don’t have an underlying back condition or illness in the SSA’s list of impairments, you can still be approved for benefits through a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment. This assessment is completed by Social Security doctors, or by your physician or a consulting physician.

Whoever performs the assessment will look at your ability to do physical work, called exertional limitations, such as your ability to walk, how much weight you can carry and lift, your ability to bend over and lift, and so on. You’ll also be evaluated for non-exertional limitations, or nonphysical skills like the ability to concentrate or sit at a desk for long periods of time.

Medical-vocational allowance

If the SSA determines that your functional limitations do prevent you from doing your past work or other types of work, you may be found disabled and can qualify for medical-vocational allowance.

However, getting approved for medical-vocational allowance is challenging. Your chances of approval are low unless you’re older than 55 and have a certain education level or skill level. 

Work with a Disability Attorney to Receive Benefits

You aren’t required to have an attorney file for disability for you. However, the claims process can be time-consuming, complicated and confusing

Furthermore, your top priority after back surgery should be recovery, not worrying about important deadlines or providing the right evidence and documentation for claim forms. Let a disability attorney at The Law Offices of Michael Hartup help.

Our team can guide you through the disability benefits process so you can focus on getting well. To arrange a free consultation with a disability attorney, call our Jackson, Tennessee office at 731-424-5559. You can also fill out an online form to schedule your consultation, or like our Facebook page for more disability resources.