What to Know About Applying for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Disability

People with multiple sclerosis (MS) can often live full lives and live independently for years following a diagnosis. However, for some, the symptoms caused by the condition may interfere with their ability to work. When that happens, applying for Social Security disability benefits is an option for them.

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis is a condition where the immune system eats away myelin, the protective covering of nerves. This process is called demyelination. The condition can affect the brain and spinal cord. The damage caused by MS slows down or blocks messages between your brain and your body, leading to the symptoms of MS.

To apply for MS benefits, a person must meet specific criteria. The criteria handbook is known as the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Blue Book Listing. The SSA’s Blue Book Listing for MS is 11.09, and states that a person qualifies if they have certain physical and cognitive limitations that make it difficult for them to maintain steady and meaningful employment.

a man filling out paperwork

Westend61 / Getty Images

How Do Disability Benefits Work?

Disability benefits are provided to people with conditions that lead to an inability to work for at least one year. For someone to qualify for the benefits, their illness must meet the Social Security Administration’s definition of a disability.

The system operates under a credit system. What that means is that when a person is healthy and working, they earn credits for the income they earn that can go toward Social Security Disability Benefits in the future if they ever develop a chronic disease. According to the Social Security Administration, people earn one credit for every $1,470 they make in income. This number varies from year to year.   

The total number of credits a person can make per year is four, and it typically takes 40 credits to qualify for disability benefits. However, exceptions can be made based on age.

Recap

Disability benefits are designed to take the financial pressure off of people who cannot work because they are ill. The benefits are often given on a credit system for people who have worked and paid taxes for many years.

What Disability Benefits Are Available for MS?

There are two types of disability benefits that can be used by someone with MS: short-term and long-term disability.

Short-Term Disability

Short-term disability benefits are for people who have a temporary illness or are waiting to be approved for permanent disability benefits. They are typically provided by private insurance companies or as work benefits. For people with MS, symptoms can sometimes flare up and then go into remission, so short-term disability may apply.

Long-Term Disability

Long-term disability benefits are given for people with long-term or chronic illnesses that will affect their ability to work for the foreseeable future. There are two government-funded types: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Social Security Disability Insurance is for workers who become disabled after working long enough to earn their credits. Payments from the SSDI program do not begin until a person has been disabled for at least five months, which is why short-term disability benefits are important for people with MS who cannot work.

The payments from SSDI go into effect on the sixth month of disability and remain for as long as the symptoms prevent a person from working. Since medical advancements and treatment options continue to evolve, the cases are often reevaluated in case a person’s condition has gotten better and they can work again.

Supplemental Security Income is given to people who have a low income or few assets. The benefits can also be used by people who are over the age of 65 and don’t have disabilities but are living under a certain financial limit. People who are receiving SSDI benefits may also be eligible to receive SSI.

Recap

Short- and long-term disability is available for people with MS to help ease the financial burden of not being able to work. For people who need permanent disability benefits, short-term benefits will help bridge the gap between when you first become unable to work and when you can receive SSDI.

When to Stop Working 

A person with MS should stop working when their symptoms interfere with their ability to perform on the job. The symptoms that can cause disability may vary depending on what type of MS a person has and where the lesions are on the brain or spinal cord. Types of MS include:

  • Clinically isolated syndrome (CIS), a first episode of neurologic symptoms caused by inflammation and demyelination in the central nervous system
  • Relapsing-remitting MS, clearly defined attacks of new or increasing neurologic symptoms followed by periods of remission
  • Secondary progressive MS, which follows an initial relapsing-remitting course
  • Primary progressive MS, worsening neurologic function (accumulation of disability) from the onset of symptoms, without early relapses or remissions

Not all people who have CIS will develop MS or disability. Relapsing-remitting MS may not lead to permanent disability depending on how often the symptoms come and go. Roughly 85% of people with MS have this type.

Secondary and primary progressive MS are characterized as versions of the disease that worsen over time. Both types of progressive MS can lead to severe disability.A person’s ability to work will depend largely on how their disease progresses, and there is no solid timeline for when work will become impossible.

Talking to Your Employer

Prior to talking to your employer about a recent MS diagnosis, you should read the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). You can learn about your rights when it comes to disclosing your illness and protecting your job security.

The only time you are legally required to tell your employer you have MS is if it interferes with your ability to perform your job, you need accommodations because of your condition, or your MS could pose a threat to safety at your workplace.

If you do wish to tell your employer about your condition or need certain accommodations, the best way to do that is to be direct and honest about your symptoms, how the condition affects you and your ability to work, and what they can do to help. Being open and honest is the best way to ensure you are given the accommodations you need.

Recap

There is no set timeline dictating when you should stop working. The severity of your symptoms will act as the best indicator that it's time to apply for disability benefits.

Social Security Criteria

For someone with MS to apply for Social Security, they must be experiencing:

  • Motor function issues: A person must be having difficulty using their arms or standing up from a sitting position or have balance issues while standing or walking.
  • Physical limitations plus cognitive issues: Cognitive issues that fall under the criteria include issues with understanding, memory, or applying information. If a person has difficulty interacting with others, concentrating on their work, or keeping up with an acceptable work pace, that qualifies them for disability. Issues with adapting and managing yourself are also criteria for MS disability benefits.

Tips for Applying 

Applying for Social Security can be done in three ways:

  • Online
  • Over the phone
  • In person

There is an SSA adult disability starter kit that can help you gather all the necessary information needed to apply for the benefit. You will likely need:

  • Birth certificate
  • Proof of United States citizenship or lawful alien status
  • U.S. military discharge papers if you served in the military prior to 1968
  • W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns
  • Medical records, doctors' notes, and recent test results
  • Any proof regarding temporary or permanent workers' compensation benefits you may have received

Applying online will expedite the process because it eliminates the need to wait for an appointment.

For Younger Applicants 

People often get diagnosed with MS between 20 and 45 years of age. Applying for Social Security benefits when you are young may be more difficult because the disease is often seen as something that worsens over time.

However, the Social Security Administration does provide leniency when it comes to how many credits are needed to apply for SSDI. For example, people who are disabled before the age of 24 need to earn only six credits in a three-year period prior to the start of their disability, and those who become disabled at age 30 are required to have only eight credits.

Recap

You can apply for disability benefits online, in person, or over the phone. Younger applicants may have a more difficult time qualifying, but there are regulations in place to ensure that no matter how old you are, you can still gain access to Social Security benefits if your condition prevents you from working.

Summary

Applying for Social Security benefits for MS is possible if the condition prevents you from performing your job. Since some forms of MS come and go and others worsen over time, it can be helpful to know what type of disability benefits are best for you and whether you can talk to your employer about accommodations so that you can continue to work.

A Word From Verywell 

Having MS can be difficult to cope with, but many people live and work with the condition for many years. Just because you have been diagnosed with MS does not mean that you have to stop working. If you do have to apply for MS disability benefits, it's important to remember that there is no shame in doing so.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you qualify for disability with MS?

    MS does qualify you for disability benefits, but the severity of the symptoms will determine whether you qualify. If your symptoms are not interfering with your ability to work, then you will probably not qualify.

  • How many people with MS are on disability?

    According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, roughly 40% of Americans with MS are on some sort of disability. Since MS is a progressive disease, it’s likely that most of those people were diagnosed years before applying for disability benefits.

  • Is multiple sclerosis debilitating?

    Multiple sclerosis can be debilitating, but not everyone with the condition experiences symptoms that prevent them from working or caring for themselves. Many people with MS live well into their 70s, with only some experiencing a severely decreased quality of life as they age.

  • Does MS interfere with movement?

    Although not everyone will experience MS the same way, one common characterization of the disease is an issue with movement. People with MS may have symptoms such as loss of balance, unstable walking, tremors, and muscle tightness.

  • How much can you get from multiple sclerosis disability?

    The amount that a person can get for their MS disability varies significantly and will depend on the amount of money they made while they were working. A calculation formula referred to as the Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME) is used to determine the benefit, and each person will receive an amount based on their situation and earning history.

Was this page helpful?
18 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Vijayasingham L, Mairami FF. Employment of patients with multiple sclerosis: the influence of psychosocial-structural coping and context. Degener Neurol Neuromuscul Dis. 2018 Mar 26;8:15-24. doi:10.2147/DNND.S131729

  2. MedlinePlus. Multiple sclerosis. Updated September 20, 2021.

  3. Social Security Administration. Disability Evaluation Under Social Security: 11.00 Neurological - Adult.

  4. Social Security Administration. Disability benefits: How you qualify.

  5. Social Security Administration. Benefits planner: Social security credits.

  6. University of California, San Francisco MS-EPIC Team:, Cree BA, Gourraud PA, Oksenberg JR, Bevan C, Crabtree-Hartman E, Gelfand JM, Goodin DS, Graves J, Green AJ, Mowry E, Okuda DT, Pelletier D, von Büdingen HC, Zamvil SS, Agrawal A, Caillier S, Ciocca C, Gomez R, Kanner R, Lincoln R, Lizee A, Qualley P, Santaniello A, Suleiman L, Bucci M, Panara V, Papinutto N, Stern WA, Zhu AH, Cutter GR, Baranzini S, Henry RG, Hauser SL. Long-term evolution of multiple sclerosis disability in the treatment era. Ann Neurol. 2016 Oct;80(4):499-510. doi:10.1002/ana.24747

  7. Social Security Administration. What you need to know when you get social security benefits. Updated April 2021.

  8. Social Security Administration. Supplemental Security Income.

  9. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Types of MS.

  10. Miller DH, Chard DT, Ciccarelli O. Clinically isolated syndromes. Lancet Neurol. 2012 Feb;11(2):157-169. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(11)70274-5

  11. Goldenberg MM. Multiple sclerosis review. P T. 2012 Mar;37(3):175-184.

  12. Dubey D, Sguigna P, Stüve O. Managing Disability in Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. Curr Treat Options Neurol. 2016 Jun;18(6):27. doi:10.1007/s11940-016-0412-7

  13. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Know Your Rights: A Legal Guide for People Living With Multiple Sclerosis. Published August 2014.

  14. Social Security Administration. Apply online for disability benefits.

  15. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Disability insurance.

  16. Buhse M. The Elderly Person With Multiple Sclerosis: Clinical Implications for the Increasing Life-Span. J Neurosci Nurs. 2015 Dec;47(6):333-9; quiz E1. doi:10.1097/JNN.0000000000000172

  17. Cameron MH, Nilsagard Y. Balance, gait, and falls in multiple sclerosis. Handb Clin Neurol. 2018;159:237-250. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-63916-5.00015-X

  18. Social Security Administration. Social Security Benefit Amounts.