Spinal disorders can make it difficult, and often impossible, to work and perform everyday functions because back and spine strength are fundamental to most of our basic activities, including sitting, standing, walking and lifting. This is why many Canadians suffering from a spinal disorder become permanently disabled.
Spinal disorders may affect the neck or anywhere on the spinal column, depending on the nature of the disorder. The following are among the most common spinal disorders.
- Degenerative disc disease
- Fractured vertebra
- Spinal stenosis
- Facet arthritis
- Herniated nucleus pulposus
- Spinal arachnoiditis
Degenerative disc disease is a condition that involves gradual wear-and-tear on discs of the spine, and is commonly associated with aging or sports. When the discs shrink or dry up, the spine loses its ability to absorb shocks, and shock absorption is what allows our spine and back to be flexible and resist impacts. In cases where the discs completely wear down and collapse, the vertebrae facet joints will rub against one another and cause pain and stiffness. Degenerative disc disease most often causes pain in the neck and/or lower back, and pain may also radiate into the buttocks, thighs, arms and hands. Pain caused by degenerative disc disease frequently worsens when bending, twisting or lifting, or when sitting for extended periods.
Spinal stenosis usually affects the lower back and neck. It results when a condition (such as osteoarthritis) causes a decrease in the spaces in the spine and increased pressure on the nerves.
A fractured or dislocated vertebra generally results from a sports injury or accident, and may impact any part of the spinal column. When someone fractures their bony vertebra, bone fragments may be damaged and/or may pinch the spinal cord and nerves. The resulting spinal injury may range in severity, with the most severe cases resulting in debilitating damage to the spinal cord and paralysis.
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis worldwide. Osteoarthritis involves damage to the joints caused by wearing down of the protective cartilage that cushions the joints at the end of our bones. In addition to the breakdown of cartilage, osteoarthritis causes inflammation to the joint lining and deterioration in the connective tissues that attach muscle to bones and hold the joint together. Osteoarthritis most often affects joints in the lumbar spine (lower back), hips, knees and hands. Persons with moderate symptoms in their back typically feel higher levels of pain and stiffness when they are inactive for an extended period; but as the condition worsens, joint paint and stiffness typically increase with physical activity and prolonged sitting.
Facet arthritis or facet joint syndrome is a degenerative condition that results when cartilage inside the spine’s facet joint breaks down. When this occurs, the affected area can become inflamed and painful, and can cause stiffness and difficulty moving. A person with facet joint degeneration will often experience aching pain in their lower back that can radiate into their buttocks. When the degeneration is in the neck, a person can feel pain in the back of their skull and shoulders. And sometimes, pain may be experienced in the arms or legs, similar to the symptoms of a herniated disc. Facet arthritis can make it difficult and painful to bend or twist towards the affected joint, and standing or being inactive for extended periods can result in increased pain.
Nucleus pulposus herniation (disc herniation) occurs when some of the soft, jellylike nucleus (the disc) that cushions the individual vertebra in our spine, pushes out and potentially irritates a nerve. This can cause pain, weakness and/or numbness in the lower back, legs or arms. Nucleus pulposus herniation is the most frequent cause of sciatic pain (sciatica). When a person experiences sciatic pain, the pain radiates along the sciatic nerve from the lower back, into the buttocks and down the leg. In most cases, sciatica affects just one side of a person’s body. Sciatica can cause substantial pain and leg weakness, as well as bowel or bladder problems.
The disabling effects of a spinal disorder
Spinal disorders effect range of motion, dexterity, mobility and strength. As a result, they impact almost every physical activity. Of course, the degree of impact varies with the severity of the condition, but the most common symptom is pain and the pain can be so severe as to make it excruciating to perform certain movements.
Pain associated with a spinal disorder frequently makes it difficult for affected persons to sleep. Sleep deprivation results in ongoing fatigue and weakness, which further impact the ability to function well. Further, it is not unusual for chronic pain to cause depression or anxiety, particularly when persons feel overwhelmed by not being able to function normally or cannot imagine an end to the pain. Beyond the physical impact, these symptoms can diminish the sufferer’s ability to function in tasks that require mental acuteness and interaction with people in a business environment.
The type of work in which you are engaged and the severity of your spinal disorder typically determine whether or not you are able to function effectively, or at all, in your job. A moderate spinal disorder may make it difficult to perform only certain job functions and/or may cause pain and discomfort while working, but the sufferer may be able to carry out the key functions in their job and thus, may not qualify as ‘disabled’. However, in a case where the spinal disorder prevents you from performing the essential aspects of your job or if, by continuing to work, you will worsen your condition and increase the level of injury, you are likely entitled to disability benefits under your disability insurance plan.
We can easily imagine how weakness and reduced mobility might impact performance in a job that requires physical strength or standing for extended periods. However, spinal disorders also affect persons who perform a sedentary job. Sedentary jobs commonly require a person to sit in the same place for a long period of time. Sedentary jobs also typically demand a high level of thinking and concentration, and/or significant manual dexterity. And, the ability to perform any of these tasks can be adversely affected by a spinal disorder.
If you are suffering from a spinal disorder and aren’t being treated for your condition, it’s extremely important that you seek treatment from a physician who is trained to help patients with your specific condition. The obvious benefit of medical treatment is that it may reduce your symptoms and pain, but another reason for seeking medical care is that you must be under the regular care of a physician if you wish to claim disability benefits. A successful application for long-term disability benefits must include a medical report and assessments from your physician that demonstrate that you have a diagnosis, are trying to get well, and are adhering to your physician’s recommendations for treatment. Your application must also include your doctor’s description of your symptoms and how they interfere with performing the essential tasks of your job.
In some cases, despite having included all required medical reports, an application for disability benefits may be denied by your disability insurer or the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). If your disability application has been denied for any reason, your best option is to consult with an experienced disability claims lawyer who fully understands LTD requirements and what’s needed in filing a successful claim.