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Intervertebral Disk Syndrome and VA Disability Benefits

Receiving VA benefits for intervertebral disk syndrome and other spinal issues can be complex. Read this guide to learn how to do it.

It’s common for veterans to experience back pain since military service often involves carrying and lifting hefty loads, running, jumping, and pivoting during combat and training.

While these activities help build strength and endurance, they can also cause immense stress on the spine, leading to intense back pain over time. One type of back pain many veterans experience is intervertebral disc syndrome.

What Is Intervertebral Disk Syndrome?

Intervertebral disk syndrome (IDS), also known as intervertebral disc disorder or discogenic disease, is a usual condition characterized by the degeneration or breakdown of at least one of the discs of the vertebrae in the spinal cord. These discs separate the spine’s bones and allow for more fluid movement. When affected, the degenerative disks can lead to back and neck pain. In addition, the pain can sometimes be felt in one’s arms and legs.

Although this disease can impact any part of the entire spine, it is most commonly experienced in the lumbar region. This syndrome’s location can cause chronic or periodic neck and back pain. The discomfort worsens when the patient sits, twists, lifts heavy objects, or bends.

When this disease worsens, the degenerated discs can become herniations when the protruding discs press against the spinal cord’s nerves, extending the pain and discomfort in other muscles. This condition can further intensify and cause nerve pain, known as sciatica. Sciatica impacts the sciatic nerve and causes low back pain and lower extremity pain.

Another possible outcome is bone spurs. These outgrowths of small bones at the edges of the damaged vertebrae may compress the nerves in the spine and lead to numbness and weakness in the arms and legs. When left untreated, this condition can lead to problems in bowel and bladder control, as well as walking. Over time, the discs can break down completely, leaving no space between the vertebrae. If this happens, the result is movement impairment, nerve root damage, and chronic pain.

Causes of Intervertebral Disk Syndrome

The causes of intervertebral disk syndrome can be a combination of genetics and other environmental factors.

Regarding genetics, scientists have identified a lack of collagen production as a possible cause of IDS. Collagen is a protein that supports and strengthens connective tissues like skin, cartilage, bone, ligaments, and tendons. It forms a network of fibers that builds stability and structure for the cervical spine. IDS can arise when there is a problem with the body’s ability to produce collagen.

Many researchers are studying and exploring other gene variations that may be linked to the development of IDS. Some of them believe that weak immune systems can also be a possible cause of the disease. However, more studies need to be conducted to confirm these claims.

In terms of non-genetic factors (external stimuli), aging, obesity, inflammation, lack or excess of physical activity, and smoking are potential causes of this disease. In addition, because they engage in or experience a combination of these external stimuli, many veterans who have served in the military are more likely to develop IDS later in life.

Symptoms of Intervertebral Disk Syndrome

Let’s move on to the symptoms of this particular disease. Much like the cause, the symptoms can vary on a person-by-person basis. The symptoms may vary depending on the type of disc degeneration they experience and the affected areas.

However, some common symptoms associated with this condition include:

  • Chronic or periodic back or neck pain
  • Tingling and numbness in the extremities
  • Weakness, especially in the leg muscles and foot drop, may point to damage in the nerve root.
  • The need to change positions frequently to feel comfortable
  • Discomfort while sitting or standing for long periods

Diagnosing Intervertebral Disk Syndrome

To diagnose whether someone is experiencing IDS or some other condition, a medical professional needs to look at the patient’s medical history and current symptoms. Likewise, they will conduct a physical examination.

In addition to these preliminary steps, a doctor may request magnetic resonance imaging to see the disc’s damage further. These extensive yet necessary steps will enable the doctor to diagnose accurately.

Treatment for Intervertebral Disk Syndrome

Fortunately, with the advancements in technology and developments in the medical field, several treatment options exist for veterans with IDS.

These include:

  • Medications like acetaminophen, arthritis medications, and non-inflammatory, non-steroidal drugs
  • Stretching and physical therapy
  • Exercise
  • Hot and cold therapy
  • Oral cortisone treatment or cortisone injections
  • Surgical treatment like spinal decompression surgery
  • Radiofrequency neurotomy
  • Artificial disk replacement
  • Non-operative treatment options, such as back braces, pain management, and acupuncture

Finding the best treatment is on a per-case basis. Depending on the severity of the condition, the doctor may recommend different treatment options.

What Are Other Degenerative Disc Diseases?

Apart from IDS, there are other degenerative disc diseases (DDD) that veterans can experience. All of these conditions affect the same area — the entire thoracolumbar spine.

Several factors can give rise to DDD, including a history of spinal problems, spine injury, and heavy lifting. Additionally, military activities such as running, climbing, and other extreme exercises can lead to degenerative disc disease.

Knowing this, look at other degenerative disk diseases that a veteran may experience.

Adult Scoliosis

Scoliosis is often found in the early stages of development, from childhood to adolescence, as the vertebrae develop. However, when scoliosis develops after these periods, it is called adult scoliosis since the curvature of the spine develops after the skeletal growth is completed.

With adult scoliosis, the spine can curve and rotate from a mild 10 degrees to a severe 100 degrees or even more. Although mild scoliosis doesn’t require treatment, adults may want to seek medical assistance to relieve symptoms, decrease pain, and, ultimately, improve spinal function.

When the curvature of the spine is combined with a degenerated disc, patients may need to consider spine surgery or other more targeted treatments.

Herniated Disk

A herniated disk, also known as a ruptured, bulging, or slipped disk, is one of the significant causes of back, neck, and leg pain. It’s an injury in the backbone where the disks that provide a buffer between the vertebrae leak or tear. The good news is many people with herniated disks can heal the damaged disc themselves with the help of bed rest and other home remedies, such as taking pain relievers and applying ice or heat packs.

People between 30 and 50 often have more chances of developing this condition. During this stage, their bones start to deteriorate, and they experience the effects of a herniated disk.

Apart from age, other risk factors that contribute to the rise of this condition include:

  • Obesity
  • Lifting heavy items
  • Bending or twisting
  • Smoking
  • Sitting down for extensive periods

A herniated disk’s symptoms are similar to intervertebral disk syndrome: back pain, muscle weakness, and numbness or tingling in the lower extremities. While the discomfort can be managed by doing home care, there may be instances where it’s necessary to see a doctor for treatment and pain relief. Patients with this condition need to see a doctor if:

  • The pain becomes so unbearable that it interferes with one’s routine.
  • The symptoms don’t improve or get worse after four to six weeks.
  • There’s a loss of bowel and bladder control.
  • There’s a tingling or numbness in the legs and arms.
  • They need help walking or standing.

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is described as the narrowing of the spaces between the vertebrae, which can lead to the compression of the nerve roots and spinal cords. One of the primary causes of this condition is age. Older people are more likely to develop spinal stenosis than their younger counterparts.

This disease tends to develop slowly as people age. This is because as individuals age, the quality and strength of their bones deteriorate, leading to general “wear and tear.” As such, the symptoms of spinal stenosis may appear only after a long period has passed.

Symptoms of this condition include sciatica, neck and/or back pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness in the upper and lower extremities. Some possible pain relief treatments include self-care, medications, physical therapy, and surgery.

Spondylolisthesis

Another spinal condition that causes back pain is known as spondylolisthesis. This occurs when one vertebra moves around or slips out of place. Due to the instability of this condition, it can put pressure on a nerve and cause immense pain in the back or legs.

There are three different types of spondylolisthesis:

  • Congenital spondylolisthesis: This is a type of spondylolisthesis that begins during the developmental phase of the spine. When a person’s spine doesn’t form properly, the misalignment can cause slippage as they grow older.
  • Degenerative spondylolisthesis: Among the three, this is the most common classification of the condition because it occurs due to the natural aging process. As people age, the discs that cushion each vertebra tend to thin out and lose water, causing the bones themselves to slip off.
  • Isthmic spondylolisthesis: Isthmic spondylolisthesis usually takes place when a person has experienced previous trauma or injury that effectively weakens or fractures the bone.

While nonsurgical options are available to treat this condition, surgery may be essential if a patient is experiencing immeasurable pain and high-grade spondylolisthesis.

What Kind of Disability Will the VA Help With?

Generally, a veteran can secure a VA degenerative disk disease disability compensation if they can provide the following evidence:

  • Information about a specific injury, illness, or event during their service
  • A recent DDD diagnosis made by a medical provider
  • A medical nexus or proof that the disability was a result of an injury, illness, or event that happened in service

Once they gather the necessary documents, veterans can apply for and submit a VA disability benefits claim (VA Form 21-526EZ). This file can be sent electronically or submitted in person. If they want to submit electronically, they can visit the VA website and follow the instructions. If they do it physically, they must mail the evidence to the Evidence Intake Center.

Veterans who have sustained a DDD due to a service-related condition are also qualified to file and receive VA disability compensation. This is because they meet the requirements of the secondary service connection.

For example, suppose someone has developed a knee condition that causes them to favor one foot over the other. As a result, they may develop complications in their lower back that give rise to intervertebral disk syndrome.

To file a secondary service connection, an applicant will need the following:

  • A medical diagnosis of DDD from their doctor
  • A link between the primary condition and the secondary degenerative disease

Note: It’s unnecessary to file the secondary condition claim as the primary condition simultaneously. Veterans can submit a claim for secondary DDD only when symptoms appear.

Does the VA Cover Intervertebral Disk Syndrome?

If the veterans can connect their injury and time in service, the VA benefits can cover their intervertebral disk syndrome. However, there may be cases where the VA regional office may request applicants to attend a compensation and pension exam where their condition will be evaluated.

During this exam, the veteran’s administration examiner will ask questions to determine whether the disease relates to their military service. The questions can revolve around pain levels and symptoms.

Once the examination is complete, the examiner will give their opinion and decide whether the DDD relates to their service.

If the examiner finds that the degenerative disease results from the natural aging process and is unrelated to the veteran’s time in service, they may deny the veteran’s claim.

What Is VA Rating Required To Cover IDS?

The VA IDS rating for degenerative disc disease falls under the Schedule of Ratings Musculoskeletal System (38 CFR § 4.71a), following diagnostic code 5242. The criteria for this particular diagnostic code is similar to diagnostic code 5003, which refers to the VA rating for degenerative arthritis.

The VA rating for IDS will depend on how much bed rest the doctor recommended over the last year and the exact number of incapacitating episodes. Based on their findings, the VA rating can range between 10 percent and 60 percent.

10 Percent Rating

If a veteran receives a 10 percent rating, they have only had episodes for one to two weeks over the last year. Likewise, their X-ray shows the involvement of two or more major or minor joint groups that suggest mild effects.

60 Percent Rating

If a veteran receives a 60 percent rating, they have experienced episodes that last at least six weeks over the previous year. In addition, they have shown major symptoms that suggest the severity of their condition.

Implications

Ten percent and 60 percent VA ratings are the two extremes for diagnosing IDS. These percentages also correlate to the monetary benefits a veteran receives. The higher their rating, the more money they will receive.

While the maximum VA rating for a degenerative disc disease is 60 percent, the average rating is only 20 percent. Only a few veterans have been eligible for a 60 percent rating in the past, and that had occurred when medical professionals believed that their DDD could lead to other conditions, such as:

  • Radiculopathy
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Scoliosis
  • Bulging disc
  • Mental health disorders (e.g., anxiety, depression, etc.)
  • Other musculoskeletal conditions

If the doctors are unaware of these potential health risks, veterans can file a disability claim for these secondary symptoms to increase their VA benefits and rating.

What Spine Disorders Qualify for Disability?

Apart from degenerative disc diseases, other spine disorders qualify for VA benefits. These include:

  • Vertebra fractures
  • Spinal arachnoiditis
  • Herniated nucleus pulposus
  • Facet arthritis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Spinal stenosis
  • Ankylosis or favorable ankylosis
  • Spondylitis

How Does the VA Rate Back Pain?

Because back pain is a common symptom of these degenerative disk diseases and spinal conditions, Veterans Affairs recognizes it as a disability and can be compensated.

The VA disability rating for back pain varies from person to person, but the same standard applies. That is, the higher the rating, the larger the compensation. Veterans can get a high rating (as high as 100 percent) if they experience terrible pain.

However, the average back pain rating is only 10 percent. To get an accurate rating, Veterans Affairs goes through a series of diagnostic codes for the spine. That said, the injuries that qualify for VA back problems disability include the following:

  • Spinal fusion
  • Vertebral dislocation or fracture
  • Chronic pain syndrome
  • Chronic back pain
  • Lumbosacral strain

Getting the VA Rating for Back Pain

To understand the VA rating for back pain, it’s important to note that the VA refers to this specific section of the body as the entire thoracolumbar spine. This references the lower to the middle back area. However, the VA considers neck pain and pain that stems from the upper back (or cervical spine) a different category. As such, it requires another VA disability rating system.

The rating for back pain depends primarily on one’s range of motion. The VA’s formula to assess this component involves looking at the flexion located at the waist and determining whether the limited movement results from a back injury.

To get a rating of 20 percent or above, you must be able to show the VA a substantial impact on your flexibility. They will assess the forward flexion movement and see whether the range of motion is within the 30 to 60-degree range.

Here’s a quick rundown of all the back pain ratings and what they each entail:

  • Ten percent: The forward flexion of the lumbar spine is within 60 to 85 degrees, and the overall range of motion of the entire spine is within 120 to 235 degrees.
  • Twenty percent: The forward flexion of the lower spine is within 30 to 60 degrees, and the overall range of motion of the entire spine is above 120 degrees.
  • Forty percent: The forward flexion only reaches a maximum of 30 degrees, and the thoracolumbar spine is fixed at a favorable position.
  • Fifty percent: The entire middle and lower regions of the spine are impacted by unfavorable ankylosis. This means that the veteran has a hard time standing and walking.
  • One hundred percent: The entire spine is affected by unfavorable ankylosis, resulting in difficulty walking, chewing, and opening the mouth. There are significant immobility issues due to the bones fusing.

VA Claim: Process for a Disability Application

If a veteran finds that they qualify for VA benefits, they can apply for a disability claim through several means. They can either employ online services, submit the documents in person, or apply over the phone.

For more instructions, here’s the disability application process.

Online Application

To apply online, the veteran must have their Social Security number and other documentation (such as the adult disability checklist, medical release form, and disability benefit application). In addition, if an individual opts to apply online, they must remember that delays are common in the application process.

In-Person Application

For in-person applications, a veteran can visit their local Social Security office and apply for disability benefits on the spot. But to proceed and get accepted, they need to have their medical records and Social Security card on hand.

Phone Application

To apply via phone, an applicant can call the Social Security office’s toll-free number 1 (800) 772-1213 from 8:00 AM to 7:00 AM. Then, they can set an appointment at their nearest office to complete the application in person.

VA Benefits for 2023

The Veterans Affairs office annually analyzes the VA rates and corresponding VA benefits. Depending on economic trends, the VA often modifies the pay chart to consider rising costs and inflation. These are the VA disability rates for 2024.

In 2023, the VA rates increased by 8.7 percent, and there was yet another increase in 2024.

That being said, the calculations per rating are as follows:

  • For 10 percent and 20 percent disability ratings, the monthly payments are $165.92 and $327.99, respectively. These individuals are not qualified for additional compensation for their spouses, children, or parents.
  • For those in the 30 percent to 60 percent ratings, the base pay for veterans with no dependents ranges from $508.05 to $1,319.65. The total can increase if spouses, children, or parents still need financial support.
  • For those in the 70 to 100 percent range, the base pay for veterans without dependents ranges from $1,663.06 to $3,621.95. Likewise, additional compensation is available if they have dependents.

Besides monetary pay, additional benefits are available to veterans, such as pensions, education and training, health care, home loans, life insurance, burial expenses, VA dental care, and more.

If anyone needs to apply for these benefits — especially for 100 disabled veterans benefits — numerous programs are available to help them.

Don’t Worry; Benefits.com Is Here To Help

We have a complete veteran’s benefits guide to help every applicant from start to finish. From understanding what intervertebral disk syndrome rating is to filing VA disability benefits and getting payments, we can help veterans get the financial support they need.

As an organization that specializes in assisting the underserved and at-risk disabled population in America, we want to do our part in making the process of obtaining benefits more convenient and hassle-free.

With our help, we can gather the necessary documentation, submit application forms, and ensure the right pay for all disabled veterans.

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