TOUCHED BY LYME: Can you get disability benefits for Lyme disease?

12th September 2012

peter burke

Guest blogger Peter Burke, an attorney who focuses on disability law, summarizes some of the challenges faced by Lyme patients.

Lyme Disease and Disability Benefits: The Challenges

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by a tick bite. Its symptoms are diverse and can cause physical disabilities, including heart disease, joint swelling, fatigue, and extreme pain, along with a variety of mental symptoms, including memory loss, attention and executive function deficits, anxiety, panic attacks, and delusions. 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 exacerbations and remissions.

Qualifying for Government Disability Programs

Because of the great variety in symptoms and 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, whether SSI or SSDI, far beyond those faced by people with other more common disabilities.

The two disability programs, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) that the government has in place provide the disabled person with income and medical coverage, but have different threshold requirements. Applicants for SSI benefits must show that they have little or no financial resources, whereas SSDI recipients must have a work history and have paid into Social Security.

In order to qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, it is necessary to demonstrate disability due to a medical condition listed in Social Security’s “blue book,” which itemizes their recognized impairments. There is no specific listing for Lyme disease. Manifestations of the disease, however, might be shown to meet the qualifying requirements, such as the inability to walk or use your arms, damage to your heart, severe inflammatory arthritis, or one of various cognitive problems or mental disorders.


Many people suffer from multiple symptoms that make it impossible to resume working, even if there is not a specific match to a blue book listing. In this situation, Social Security uses the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to determine the combination of impairments is sufficiently disabling to keep you from returning to work.

If they determine you are not physically capable of performing your usual job, they will consider whether you might be able to perform a sedentary one instead. 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.

It is essential 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 the RFC, 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.

Getting Help

Because Lyme disease doesn’t fit neatly into any category, is hard to diagnose, and comes with exacerbations 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. The language used in the application form is often vague and confusing. For example, what is the difference between a “marked” impairment and a “severe” one?  If you aren’t able to make the distinction, your claim could be denied.

Many disability claimants attempting to get benefits on their own do end up being denied, which requires filing an appeal, causing the claim process to drag on for an uncomfortably long time. Hiring a lawyer who specializes in Social Security benefits can often ease and shorten the process and relieve a burden that you may not be able to handle alone in the face of the many physical and mental challenges associated with Lyme disease.

Peter H. Burke is a long term disability and Social Security Disability attorney with Burke, Harvey & Frankowski, LLC. Their website is



4 thoughts on “TOUCHED BY LYME: Can you get disability benefits for Lyme disease?

  1. I just wanted to add that there are paralegal services which can also help you file paperwork. I used Allsup, but there are many options, including hiring an attorney.

    You really should get help, because the paperwork is overwhelming, and there are certain key phrases that must be used.

    Something I don’t see written about much is the importance of the letter that the doctor writes. Most doctors think if they say a patient is too ill to work, then that is enough. But the letter has to have certain key findings written in a specific way. Make sure your attorney or paralegal group gives you some directions that you can take to your doctor. I’ve known people who hired an attorney and still got denied because the physician did not adhere to this strict written format.

  2. I was able to become eligible for disability back in 1998, when it was impossible for me to work anymore. I think on of the most important things to help becoming eligible for disability is to be very specific on the application. This can be very hard for us Lymies-because it requires a great deal of highly focused information from the applicant.

    Somehow my application and the interviews with the psychologist and home visit to assess my condition went very well. The psychologist seemed a bit “snippy” and arrogant, apparently doubting the severity of my condition. At the time I was a practicing, licensed psychotherapist- and let her know that since she lived in the area in which I was infected, she might easily be sitting in the chair that I was occupying.

    • Very good answer. Once bitten twice shy and change her attitude. I’m trying to help a friend in California with this despicable disease. She exhausted all her resources and waiting now for ssdi. Is there any other source of monetary to get her by to help pay her bills, visit her doctor put gas in her car. I hear California has certain programs that do assist people with certain disabilities of this nature.

  3. I have all the symptoms and effects listed for lyme disease, including the growing “bullseye rash”, but because of my poverty, I can not seek medical help. Will the social security office provide me a doctor?

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