Workers’ compensation, Social Security disability may be an option for chronic pain sufferers

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSDS), Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), shoulder-hand syndrome, causalgia and Sudeck's atrophy, are all terms used to describe the same painful and debilitating illness known as chronic pain syndrome. Because of the severity of pain and disability associated with chronic pain syndrome, workers' compensation benefits, Social Security disability benefits or both, may be available to provide financial support to individuals who are unable to work because of their illness.

Inciting injury and subsequent onset of intense pain

Two unique characteristics of chronic pain syndrome are the occurrence of an earlier injury (referred to as the inciting or precipitating injury) and the subsequent onset of intense, ongoing pain in the region of the earlier injury.

  • Inciting or precipitating injury. The inciting injury could have been so minor that the victim didn't even know he or she had been injured or something as invasive as surgery, as severe as a stroke with hemiplegia (paralysis affecting one side of the body) or as common as cervical spondylosis (age-related wear and tear affecting the spinal disks of the neck).
  • Later onset of intense, chronic pain. Regardless of the nature of the inciting injury, the intensity of the pain that subsequently occurs in the region of the inciting injury is substantially out of proportion to the pain of the inciting injury.

How is chronic pain syndrome diagnosed?

The diagnostic criteria to make a clinical diagnosis of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Syndrome (RSDS)/Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) can be confusing because of the medical terminology employed; however, in general, a patient is diagnosed with RSDS/CRPS because he or she is experiencing in the region of the inciting injury continuous pain, the intensity of which is disproportionate to the inciting event/precipitating injury, and the pain is associated with at least one of the following: swelling; autonomic instability (decreased or excessive sweating, body temperature fluctuations, changes in skin texture/color); abnormally slow or fast hair or nail growth; osteoporosis; or involuntary movements in the affected region.

What are my options if chronic pain syndrome makes it impossible for me to work?

Depending on the individual circumstances a person suffering from RSDS/CRPS may be entitled to workers' compensation, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI, SSD, DI) benefits or both.

  • Workers' compensation. A person whose RSDS/CRPS inciting injury was a workplace injury may be entitled to workers' compensation benefits in addition to Social Security disability benefits.
  • Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration (SSA) considers RSDS/CRPS a "medically determinable impairment" which may be the basis of a finding of "disability." As explained in the SSA's guidelines, an RSDS/CRPS diagnosis must be documented through "appropriate medical signs, symptoms, and laboratory findings" before a determination on eligibility for Social Security disability benefits can be made.

Speak to a workers' compensation lawyer

The workers' compensation and SSDI processes are both complex and often confusing. If you are suffering from chronic pain syndrome, speak to an attorney who can provide the guidance and support you need.