Does having a pacemaker make me disabled for Social Security?

Question:

I recently had a pacemaker implanted and don’t feel I’m able to go back to work. Can I get Social Security disability benefits?

Answer:

Social Security awards disability benefits to those whose activities are so limited by their condition that there is no job they can do — or to those who meet the criteria of one of Social Security’s disability listings. Either method of getting an approval will be an uphill battle for someone with a pacemaker unless they have other, severe medical conditions as well. Here’s why.

First let’s look at Social Security’s medical listings. Having a pacemaker doesn’t alone qualify you automatically under any of the cardiovascular listings. But if you still have cardiovascular symptoms after having the pacemaker implanted, you can check to see if you meet the criteria in any of Social Security’s listings. Most people who have had pacemakers installed have slower than normal heartbeats or heart block, so the disability listing most likely to apply to you is the one for arrhythmias. If your arrhythmias aren’t fully controlled by the pacemaker, and your arrhythmias have caused fainting, or almost fainting (with altered consciousness), on at least three different occasions in the last year, you could qualify under the listing for arrhythmias and get benefits. Or, if your arrhythmias are controlled but you have congestive heart failure, you could qualify under the listing for chronic heart failure if you meet its complex requirements. (Read more in Nolo’s article about getting disability benefits through a cardiovascular listing.)

In a nutshell, if your pacemaker implantation was successful, it’s likely your symptoms and limitations have largely gone away, making you less likely to qualify for disability under a listing. But because your condition might not be stable right after your procedure, Social Security will wait until three months after your pacemaker is installed to make a decision, so that your new condition can be properly evaluated once your condition is stable.

Second, without meeting the requirements of a listing, you would have to prove to Social Security that you can no longer work due to doctor’s restrictions, such as “no operating hazardous equipment due to potential dizziness,” or self-reported limitations, like severe fatigue. While significant limitations or restrictions are more likely with an ICD (implantable cardiac defibrillator) than a pacemaker, if you do have limitations or restrictions, this limits the number of jobs Social Security can say you are able to do. Where doctor’s restrictions can really help you get disability is if you’re over 50 or 55. If you can’t return to your previous type of work because of restrictions, Social Security may not be able to require you to learn another line of work at your age.

Ironically, you may have been able to qualify for disability before you had a pacemaker if you had recurrent arrhythmias that caused you to lose consciousness. What if you have arrhythmias and the doctor recommends a pacemaker, and you refuse to get one? That’s another question altogether. Social Security normally has the ability to deny disability benefits to those whose disability could be corrected by medication, surgery, or other medical treatments. But if you have a good reason for refusing a pacemaker (one that’s on Nolo’s list of excuses for failing to comply with doctor recommendations), you might still be able to get benefits – perhaps with the help of a good disability attorney.