Eligibility for Disability Benefits and Physical Symptoms

Symptoms are how you feel. No one knows how you feel better than you. You know where you hurt and when you hurt. You know when you get short of breath or dizzy or fatigued. So it's up to you to describe those symptoms to the judge in as much detail and as vividly as possible. After all, it's these symptoms that keep you from working. It's not because you have some particular label of disease like arthritis or a heart condition or a lung condition that you are unable to work. You cannot work because of how you feel.

So if the judge says to you, “Why can't you work?” Don't say, "It's because I have arthritis." Lots of people with the same impairment can and do work. So telling the judge the name of your health problem really tells the judge nothing. What the judge needs to know is the severity of your pain and other symptoms.

Be specific when you describe your symptoms. Don't just say, "It hurts." Describe what your symptoms feel like, the same way you have probably described your symptoms to members of your family. Describe the nature, intensity, and location of pain, whether it travels to different parts of your body, how often you have pain, and how long it lasts. Explain if you feel different from day to day. Explain what starts up your pain or other symptoms, what makes your symptoms worse and what helps relieve them.

Describe your symptoms to the judge the very best you can. Be precise and truthful. Don't exaggerate, but don't minimize your symptoms either.

If you exaggerate your symptoms in your testimony, if you testify about constant excruciating pain but the medical records don't back up what you say, the judge will not believe you. The judge is also going to wonder how you made it to the hearing if your pain is so bad, so be careful when you use words such as "extreme" or "excruciating" to describe pain; and don't say that you "always" or "constantly" hurt or that you "never" get any relief from pain if what you mean is something less.

On the other hand, if you minimize your symptoms by saying they're not so bad, and a lot of people do, the judge is not going to find you disabled because you will convince the judge that you have few limitations. This is not the time to be brave.

So try not minimize or exaggerate. Describe your symptoms exactly as they are.

Estimate How Often You Have Pain or Other Symptoms

If your symptoms come and go, be prepared to explain how often this happens. Some people don’t give enough information, especially when the frequency of symptoms varies a lot. It is never a good answer to say that something happens “sometimes” or “occasionally” or “once in a while.” The judge won’t know if you have the problem once a day, once a week or once a year. The judge could conclude that this means that your symptoms occur only a few times per year — which is not enough to be disabling. When the frequency of symptoms varies greatly, a lot of explanation and examples are necessary. For example, tell how often symptoms occur in a usual week. If you have weeks with no symptoms, estimate how many weeks out of a month or year are like that. The more information you give about how often you have symptoms, the better understanding the judge will have about why your symptoms keep you from working.

Estimate How Long Your Pain or Other Symptoms Last

For symptoms that come and go, be prepared to explain how long they last. Try to explain this without using the word “sometimes.” Instead, use the word “usually,” then estimate how often the symptoms last longer and how often the symptoms are shorter.

Estimate the Intensity of Your Symptoms

You may be asked if your pain and other symptoms vary in intensity. If so, do your best to describe how your pain and other symptoms vary in intensity during a usual day or over a usual week.

Often it is best to use the 1 to 10 scale sometimes used by therapists and doctors. On this scale, 1 is essentially no pain and 10 is the worst pain you’ve ever had. Be sure you understand this scale and use it correctly without exaggerating. Think about the worst pain you ever had. Did it cause you to go to the emergency room? Did you lie in your bed writhing in pain, finding it difficult to get up even to go to the bathroom? Did it cause you to roll up into a fetal position? These are the images that the judge will have about what it means to have pain at a 10 level. Some people with disability claims have pain that gets to this level once in a while; however, most do not. People who testify that their pain is frequently at the 10 level do not understand the scale. Most judges will conclude that someone who testifies during a hearing that his or her pain is at a 10 level is dishonest because judges think there is no way a person could be at a hearing with pain that bad..