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By Diana Wade
Disability Advocate 

Can Arnold Chiari malformation qualify for disability?

Ask the Advocate


November 9, 2019

Diana Wade

Question: I am a 54-year-old woman with Arnold Chiari malformation. I worked as a medical assistant for more than 20 years. In 2016 I was forced to leave my job at the hospital because I kept falling and losing my balance. I have headaches almost every day. There are no medications to help me. The hospital said I was too big of a risk.

I applied for Social Security Disability Insurance. They say I can return to work as a medical assistant. How can that be? Please help!

Answer: Chiari malformation is a condition in which the brain tissue extends into the spinal canal. Chiari malformation is uncommon, but newer more advanced imaging has led to more frequent diagnoses. There is some evidence that Chiari malformation runs in families.

Chiari malformation can become a progressive disorder and lead to serious complications. Symptomatic Chiari malformation can be treated with surgery with a goal to stop the progression of changes in the anatomy in the brain and spinal canal. If you are having serious complications, be sure to talk to your doctor about treatment plans.

Some people with Chiari malformation have no symptoms but others often have neck pain, dizziness, unsteady gait and problems with balance, poor hand coordination and fine motor skills, numbness and tingling of the hands and feet. Some people also have difficulty swallowing, sometimes accompanied by gagging, choking or vomiting.

Social Security does not have a specific medical listing for Chiari malformation. Social Security has another method of approving individuals for disability. If a person is unable to work because of the limitations of Chiari malformation, they may be approved for disability through a medical vocational allowance. In your case, if Social Security finds that you are unable to perform your past job and you have no transferable skills to lighter work, you may be entitled to benefits based on your age, education and past work experience.

Social Security disability examiners are able to consider a person's residual functional capacity (what they are able to do in spite of limitations), age, education, past work activity and their ability to perform other types of work when their limitations are considered. If the disability examiner finds that their residual functional capacity is so restrictive it precludes their past work or jobs or any other work, they may be approved for disability benefits.

An Accredited Disability Representative with more than 20 years experience, Diana Wade believes her clientele can be comfortable knowing that she is recognized by SSA and a charter member of NADR. To contact Ms. Wade call (661) 821-0494, email or visit


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