Back pain is a common condition suffered by millions of Americans. For veterans, back conditions are a leading cause of disability, and a large number of back claims are filed each year. Service members in all areas of the military may have physically demanding jobs. Many carry massive, heavy loads and face strenuous activity, physical training, weapons training, and marches that can cause chronic lower back pain and/or spinal injuries.
But veterans who suffer back conditions due to their time in service can’t file a disability claim for “back pain.” They need to be specific about their condition and the symptoms they’re experiencing. While there are many types of back and spine conditions recognized by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), one common problem veterans face is radiculopathy—often called a pinched nerve.
Radiculopathy is a back condition that can occur when the bones in your back lose the cushioning between them and rub together, sometimes pinching a nerve. When this happens, the pinched nerve may cause numbness, weakness, pain, and/or tingling. These symptoms can be felt in the cervical area (upper spine), the thoracic area (middle spine), and the lumbar area (lower spine). Radiculopathy can be caused by many factors, including bone spurs, herniated disks, and trauma.
When You’re Diagnosed With Radiculopathy
If you see a doctor for your back pain, they typically look at your back in three sections. Each of these sections connects nerves from your brain to parts of your body: the cervical section near and around your neck and shoulders; the thoracic section down your lower back; and the lumbar section that extends to your tailbone. A veteran can suffer radiculopathy in all three areas:
- Cervical radiculopathy. This type of radiculopathy occurs when a veteran experiences a pinched nerve in the neck. They may feel mild to severe pain, stiffness, numbness, or burning that radiates across the shoulders and/or down one or both arms. These symptoms can also extend to the hands and fingers. The pain associated with this type of radiculopathy can restrict your head movements, and you may lose feeling and sensation in your hands. This can significantly affect your ability to do heavy lifting, continuous computer work, construction work, or any job that requires physical labor.
- Thoracic radiculopathy. This occurs when a veteran experiences a pinched nerve in the middle of the back. Pain is usually felt around the ribs and the chest rather than in the arms and legs. If you exercise too much, exert yourself, or even take deep breaths, you may feel pain and numbness in your trunk, and sitting and standing may be difficult. This type of radiculopathy is rare and not commonly diagnosed. Doctors will do a variety of tests to rule out other possible causes of your back pain and often take a long time to identify this as the problem.
- Lumbar radiculopathy. This type of radiculopathy is a common condition in veterans. It occurs when there’s a pinched nerve in the lower section of the back. One type of lumbar radiculopathy is sciatica. This condition occurs when the sciatic nerve is pressed or pinched. The pain, burning, and numbness of the sciatic nerve can extend from your backside to your feet on either side of your body. Often, those who experience sciatica have dull back pain and a sensation of an electrical current zapping them in their legs.
Service-Connecting Your Radiculopathy
Veterans who want to service-connect their disability need different types of evidence. To prove that your radiculopathy is directly related to your time in the military, you need one or more of the following:
- Medical records that show you were diagnosed and treated for radiculopathy while you were employed by the U.S. military
- Medical records that show you were diagnosed and treated for radiculopathy within a year of being honorably discharged
- Medical records that show your radiculopathy developed due to another service-connected condition
- Service personnel records that provide information about your job and assignments while employed, where you were stationed, and when. Additionally, these records may cite accidents, incidents, or events at that location that might have caused or led to your radiculopathy. They may also include your requests to change jobs because of back pain and if you received medical treatment for your symptoms.
Obtaining VA Disability for Radiculopathy
If you’re an honorably discharged veteran seeking VA disability benefits for back pain, you’ll likely receive a 10% rating—the general minimum rating if the back pain is undiagnosed. To obtain a higher, permanent disability rating, you need your doctor to diagnose your condition and provide a precise measurement of your range of motion. Some back disabilities receive a higher rating, including radiculopathy.
When you see a doctor for back pain, their primary concern is your range of motion—also called flexion. This tells the doctor how far you can move before you feel pain. If you have neck or upper back pain, the doctor will likely move your head forward and back, side to side, and in other ways to measure your extension and flexion. It’s critical that you tell the doctor the exact moment when you start to feel pain.
However, when you see a doctor specifically for radiculopathy, you’ll be rated on neurological symptoms such as which limbs feel numb or have lost sensation and to what degree. Your physician may characterize the loss of sensation with words such as mild, moderate, or severe. But it’s important for you to explain how the numbness and loss of sensation affect your quality of life. If those symptoms interfere with your ability to get dressed on your own, shower, or feed yourself, you might receive a rating of 50% or higher. However, if you cannot show that your symptoms impact your ability to complete necessary tasks, you might only receive a rating of 20% or less. It’s critical that you document the severity of your symptoms and when they get in the way of living a normal life. You can look at the ratings for back pain conditions under 38 § CFR 4.124a: Schedule of ratings – neurological conditions and convulsive disorders.
Call Cuddigan Law for Service-Connected Radiculopathy
If you suffer from service-connected radiculopathy or any back pain, you may qualify for disability benefits. Let Cuddigan Law assist you in determining if you’re eligible. Our attorneys have been supporting veterans for years, and we will work with your treating medical providers to describe the full extent of your limitations. We know exactly how much these disability benefits mean to you. If we accept your case, we will take all steps within the law to help you get them. If your back pain is making it impossible for you to work, contact Cuddigan Law to speak with an intake specialist for free.