Back pain is a common problem for veterans. The strain of military service can lead to wear and tear on the spine, not to mention the risk of traumatic injuries in training or combat. Many veterans experience chronic or worsening pain after they leave active duty.
Degenerative disc disease and herniated discs are two of the most frequent causes of back pain. Both of these conditions involve damage to the spinal discs, the rubbery tissue that separates and cushions the vertebrae in the spine.
Spinal disc problems can become incapacitating, leaving veterans unable to work or perform daily activities. Veterans may be eligible for disability compensation from the VA due to service-related spinal disc conditions.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Spinal discs help the bones of the spine bend and twist easily. Over time, these discs can wear down as a normal part of aging. But injury and overuse can speed the process. When discs degenerate, the vertebrae compress and grind against each other, often shifting and pinching the nerves of the spinal column.
The primary symptom of degenerative disc disease is pain or discomfort that can be mild, moderate, or severe. Disc disease may cause:
- Pain in the neck or lower back
- Pain extending to the arms, hands, hips, or legs
- Pain that starts and stops
- Pain that gets worse after bending, twisting, or lifting
- Pain that worsens over time
One potential complication of degenerative disc disease is a herniated disc or bulging disc.
A herniated disc is a spinal disc with a tear in the outer layer. The jelly-like lubricant inside the disc leaks out through the tear. Herniated discs are also known as bulging discs, slipped discs, or ruptured discs and occur most often in the neck or lower back.
Herniated discs can be caused by traumatic injury, though their occurrence is often due to wear and tear on the discs. Symptoms of a herniated disc vary widely. Some people don’t know they have a bulging disc until it appears on an X-ray. Others experience symptoms including:
- Pain in the arm, shoulder, leg, or hip
- Numbness and tingling in the arm, shoulder, leg, or hip
- Muscle weakness
Symptoms can worsen over time. If a herniated disc isn’t treated, veterans are at risk for worsening pain, weakness, numbness in the torso or bladder, or bowel control problems due to nerve damage.
Applying for Herniated Disc Disability Benefits
The VA considers both degenerative disc disease and herniated discs to be disabilities. Veterans who have developed spinal disc problems due to military service may be eligible for VA disability benefits. Veterans may also be eligible to make a VA claim if military service aggravated pre-existing degenerative disc disease or a pre-existing herniated disc.
To qualify for VA disability benefits, veterans must establish a link between military service and current health conditions. To demonstrate the service connection, a veteran must show medical evidence of a current disability, evidence that an in-service event or injury occurred, and evidence of a connection between in-service injury, illness, or activity and the herniated disc condition (a medical nexus opinion).
Relevant injuries may be documented in in-service treatment records. If disc disease symptoms started after service, a doctor should document how service-related activities contributed to the veteran’s current disability.
How the VA Rates a Herniated Disc
If a veteran has a herniated disc, the VA will consider whether the condition leads to incapacitation. The VA defines incapacitation as “a period of acute signs and symptoms due to intervertebral disc syndrome that requires bed rest prescribed by a physician and treatment by a physician.”
The VA assesses the duration of incapacitation episodes and looks at range of motion limits. The VA will assign disability according to whichever rating results in a higher rating level.
|Formula for Rating Intervertebral Disc Syndrome Based on Incapacitating Episodes
With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least 6 weeks during the past 12 months
With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least 4 weeks but less than 6 weeks during the past 12 months
With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least 2 weeks but less than 4 weeks during the past 12 months
With incapacitating episodes having a total duration of at least one week but less than 2 weeks during the past 12 months
Practical Tip: In almost a quarter of a century of legal practice, we have never seen a case with doctor-prescribed bed rest. We do not believe it is the current standard of medical care, and it will be unlikely that a veteran will ever be able to meet the doctor-prescribed bed rest requirement.
In practice, veterans are better off maximizing their ratings based on range of motion impairment and then adding ratings for all the secondary conditions caused by back pain. Examples include degeneration in proximal joints, depression, obesity, metabolic disease, and heart disease.