In a recent post on the importance of claimant credibility , I made a point that your ability to effectively describe your physical pain at the hearing may play a role in helping you win your case. Since physical pain is common to many disability cases, I want to elaborate on this point. Not only should you be able to effectively describe your pain at the hearing, but also throughout the claims process and during doctor's visits as well.
Pain is subjective and can be hard to describe
All individuals have experienced some degree of pain at some point throughout life. The intensity of pain can range from a dull headache, to an agonizing toothache, to the more severe type of pain commonly associated with chronic conditions such as migraine headaches, Fibromyalgia, and Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). Although pain is a symptom and we easily recognize it when we experience it, pain is nevertheless hard to describe.
Pain can be hard to describe because 1) it is subjective and cannot be felt by others and 2) it is not a visible condition. Thus, a judge assigned to your case may not fully understand the extent your pain if you merely state you have pain. Stating you have pain is not enough; in order to strengthen your chances of winning your disability case, you must learn how to effectively describe your physical pain so that the caseworkers, physicians, and even the ALJ (Administrative Law Judge) assigned to your case can understand what you experience each day and how your pain limits your functioning.
Your ability to effectively describe your pain to your doctors is also important. This is because their reports and records will be evaluated by the SSA. I have seen many medical records where during an office visit, a client replied only by saying “Fine” after being asked by the doctor “How are you doing?” In such cases, the client's chart might reflect something like: “Patient stated that she is doing fine today.” The word “fine” does not win a social security disability case. In fact, some adjudicators will often seize on something like this to justify denying a claim. Choose your words cautiously – even while at the doctor – especially if your words relate to describing how you are feeling.
The following are guidelines suggested to help claimants be able to effectively describe their pain.
Nature of the pain: What is the pain like? Is it sharp or dull? Is the pain aching, shooting or throbbing? Does the pain burn? Is it a constant ache that progresses to spasms as it evolves? On a scale from one-to-ten, how does your pain rate?
Location: Where is the pain physically located on your body?
Frequency and Duration: It is painful all the time or just some of the time? How long does the pain last? Do you feel better in the morning? Alternatively, does it start bad in the morning and continue to worsen until you go to bed?
Triggers: What events trigger your pain, if any? Do events such as walking result in pain? Does looking at a computer screen for an extended period of time result in migraine headaches?
Effects of pain: Does the pain affect how much you can lift? Does the pain affect your ability to interact with your children or spouse? How long can you sit, stand or walk? Does your pain affect your ability to read any type of written correspondence, whether it be a book or letter?
Effects of medications: Do your medicines help? Does the pill or injections relieve all of the pain or just some of the pain? What do the medications help with? What pain does the medication not relieve?
Keeping a journal of your symptoms and pain may be useful
Again, pain must be described in other words than by just saying “I hurt.” As noted in earlier posts, keep a journal handy and write down your daily symptoms and experiences with pain. Something like: “A day in the life of X (your name).” It does not have to be in some fancy, formal writing style. Notes jotted down are just fine. Be sure to include things such as pain level, daily limitations, and medicines taken (and side effects). It can be hard to remember on your own how you feel each day. The disability process is long and enduring. Do yourself a favor and start journaling today.