ASK THE ADVOCATE: Last summer my kids and I went camping in the mountains. I thought we were careful about ticks, but unfortunately, I found several in our clothing when we got back and one bit me! A few weeks later I started have severe headaches and neck stiffness. I also developed severe pain and swelling in my knees. I finally went to the doctor to discover I have Lyme disease. Now I am unable to work because I am having problems concentrating and focusing. Would I qualify for benefits even if I am young (age 35)?
ANSWER: According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Lyme Disease is caused by a bacterial infection resulting from the bite of a tick that is very small and often escapes detection. While Lyme Disease can be overcome in its earlier stages, chronic Lyme Disease is not so easy a foe to beat. The bacterial organisms infest the brain of the afflicted and cause symptoms that have made Lyme Disease very hard to diagnose as these symptoms mimic those of Multiple Sclerosis and even some kinds of cancer.
“Neurological complications,” continues the NINDS, “most often occur in the second stage of Lyme disease, with numbness, pain, weakness, Bell’s palsy (paralysis of the facial muscles), visual disturbances, and meningitis symptoms such as fever, stiff neck, and severe headache. Other problems, which may not appear until weeks, months, or years after a tick bite, include decreased concentration, irritability, memory and sleep disorders, and nerve damage in the arms and legs.”
Victims often consult with as many as 20 or 30 doctors before getting an accurate diagnosis. To complicate the problem, symptoms mimic a range of other mental and physical conditions and are often inconsistent, with exacerbation and remissions.
There is a large spectrum of symptoms and then adding the difficulty obtaining a diagnosis, many people suffering from this debilitating disease are unable to work. However, for those same reasons, they face challenges when applying for disability benefits.
It is very important that you tell your doctors about all the symptoms and disabilities you are experiencing and make sure your medical records include a diagnosis, prognosis, and complete description of your limitations that result from Lyme disease, including physical, neurological, cognitive, and psychological impairments. Your medical records will be the primary source of information used in your case, and if you fail to mention any symptoms, limitations, or disabilities to your doctor, or if the doctor neglects to record them, they won’t be included. You should make sure your doctor records everything you tell him/her.
Many people suffer from multiple symptoms that make it impossible to work. Because SSA does have a specific Listing for Lyme Disease, SSA will determine what your capacity for work is based on your remaining physical limitations. Put another way SSA will determine if the combination of impairments is sufficiently disabling to keep you from returning to work.
Many patients with Lyme disease experience problems with balance, arthritis, fine motor skills, eyesight, and cognitive and emotional disturbances that would make even a less physically demanding job impossible. If you are able to demonstrate through the RFC that you are unable to do even a sedentary job, you should be qualified to receive benefits.
Because Lyme disease doesn’t fit neatly into any category, is hard to diagnose, and comes with exacerbation and remissions, it can be difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming to wade through the red tape involved in the various stages of the application process.