Is Chronic Pain a Disability? Understanding the Legal Perspective

Chronic pain is difficult to live with and can impact your functioning, but is it classed as a disability? Keep reading to find out.

Chronic pain is a common medical issue, affecting 14 million people in the UK alone. A recent study found that in America, chronic pain is more common than diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure!

For many people, the symptoms of chronic pain can significantly impact their lives and their ability to function. But, does that mean chronic is a disability? Let’s take a closer look.

What is a Disability?

A disability is any condition of the body or mind that impacts an individual’s ability to function. When it comes to the legal stuff, the definition of a disability varies depending on the country you live in.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disabled person as: “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity”.

In the UK, you are classed as disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you: “have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that an ‘impairment’ is defined as “an absence of or significant difference in a person’s body structure or function or mental functioning”.

Both America and the UK state that these impairments need to last longer than 12 months. The UK government makes it very clear that their definition includes people with fluctuating conditions, meaning conditions that can change from day to day.

Is Chronic Pain a Disability?

Chronic pain refers to any pain lasting longer than three to six months. Pain can be widespread (meaning felt all over the body or in multiple areas), or be in one specific area of the body.

Unfortunately, chronic pain conditions sometimes come with stigma. The symptoms are often ‘invisible’, so others may not understand that they’re there. But just because your symptoms can’t be seen, it doesn’t make them less valid or less debilitating.

Chronic pain is often a symptom of a chronic illness. Chronic pain itself as a symptom may not be classed as a disability, but the condition that causes it might be.

Many medical conditions can cause chronic pain including:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Arthritis
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome/ Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS)
  • Migraines
  • Cancer
  • Sciatica
  • Neuropathy
  • Multiple sclerosis 
  • Degenerative disc disease (DDD)
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

This book on Pain and Disability explains that in America when it comes to the definition of disability and eligibility for disability benefits, typically only diagnosable conditions that cause pain as a symptom qualify.

There is plenty of evidence that chronic pain impacts a patient’s ability to carry out tasks, which meets the definitions of disability we discussed earlier. This 2019 study states that chronic pain: “negatively impacts activities of daily living and health-related quality of life”.

So, if your chronic pain impacts your ability to function it should be classed as a disability regardless of any diagnosis. But legally, this may not always be the case.

Research shows that medical professionals are beginning to recognise chronic pain as a disability in its own right, but unfortunately, the law is still catching up.

Physical Effects of Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can have many negative physical effects on your body. Often chronic pain conditions cause other symptoms as well as the pain.

Physical effects of chronic pain conditions may include:

  • A variety of pain types
  • Fatigue
  • Issues with mobility
  • Brain fog
  • Muscle stiffness and tension
  • Muscle spasms
  • Dizziness/vertigo
  • Change in appetite
  • Problems with coordination
  • Insomnia
  • Numbness
  • Itching/skin irritation
  • Reduced immune system

The severity and frequency of chronic pain symptoms vary greatly from person to person. For some people, chronic pain symptoms may be mild and they may not be disabled. For others, even if they don’t have a specific diagnosis, their symptoms may still be disabling.

For example, a study of 6507 people living in Andalusia, Spain found that: “The prevalence of disabling chronic pain in the Spanish adult population was 11.36%, while that of non-disabling chronic pain was 5.67%”,

So, whether chronic pain is disabling depends on the individual and their symptoms.

Emotional Effects of Chronic Pain

Research shows that chronic pain and mental health are strongly linked. Living with chronic pain can be incredibly difficult to cope with emotionally. This can lead to mental illness and emotional problems including:

  • Feelings of hopelessness and lack of control
  • Anger and frustration
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fear 
  • Panic attacks
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Isolation

It’s well documented that mental illness can be disabling. When you are struggling emotionally you’re often unable to focus or keep up with daily tasks.

The Mental Health Foundation explains that: “Mental health and behavioural problems (such as depression, anxiety and drug use) are the primary drivers of disability worldwide”. So, it’s not only the physical symptoms of chronic pain that can cause disability.

Why Does The Legal Definition Matter?

If you’re wondering why it matters if you’re legally classed as disabled, that’s totally valid! You know if your symptoms are disabling and that’s all that should matter.

However, understanding the legal definition and whether you meet the criteria is important when accessing help.

If you’re classed as disabled legally, you may be able to access more treatment and support from local organisations, your workplace, the government, and the medical system. You may be able to access financial support through disability benefits. If you live in America, it can also affect your ability to get medical insurance as part of your social security.

Chronic Pain and Benefits

While some people with chronic pain can work full-time or part-time, others are unable to work at all and may need to rely on benefits. An organisation called Pain UK states that: “25% of chronic pain patients lose their jobs, this contributes to 42% in the lowest income households being more likely to report chronic pain, compared with 27% in the highest.”

Who Qualifies for Disability Benefits?

The criteria to qualify for disability benefits vary greatly depending on where you live. You need to meet the definition of disabled for your country and provide evidence of how your symptoms affect your functioning.

In America, the Social Security Administration (SSA) describes the criteria as: “the inability to work at any “substantial gainful activity” because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment expected to result in death or to last for at least 12 months.” You must also be able to prove your conditions and symptoms with appropriate clinical evidence and test results.

In the UK, there are several different benefits you may be able to qualify for if you meet the legal definition of disabled. The government states that you need to have a physical or mental health condition that impacts daily functioning and has or will last for 12 months or more.

In many places, financial help may also be means-tested. That means that your household income (including everyone who works in your home even if you don’t) needs to be under a certain amount. The government may also take your savings into account if you have them.

How to Get Disability Benefits

It’s best to do plenty of research before applying for benefits to figure out the rules in your area. Often, there are a lot of forms to be filled out and potentially in-person assessments to attend.

You will have to provide lots of medical evidence and share a lot about your symptoms and their impact on your life. This can feel a bit overwhelming and as though your condition is ‘on trial’. I know it’s hard, but try not to let this put you off. If you meet the criteria, you are entitled to the help and there’s no shame in that.

In America, you need to apply through your local SSA office, or another local organisation depending on your state. In the UK, you can apply online through the government website, via phone, or request a paper form be sent to your address. From there, the government will let you know what other information they need or if you need to attend any assessments.

Advocating for Yourself

Unfortunately, the stigma around chronic pain and how changeable pain conditions can be can make it difficult to get disability benefits. That doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to them! However, it does mean you may need to fight for what you deserve.

There is plenty of evidence that shows that the system is flawed and needs to improve when it comes to understanding and assessing chronic pain and invisible disabilities.

The more information you can provide when you first apply, the better. Get copies of your medical records, test results, and even letters of support from your doctors or specialists.

If your claim for benefits is turned down, you can appeal. This may take time and involve going to court to fight for your rights, but often appeals are successful.

If you are struggling, there are lots of organisations and charities that may be able to help you with your benefits applications as well as help you fight for other rights, such as housing and help at work. You may also be able to get legal help such as a disability lawyer to represent you.

Help at Work

If people with chronic pain can work, it doesn’t mean their pain stops. This 2022 study on the topic states: “ 20%-30% of employees may be working while experiencing chronic pain.”

If you are able to work, being disabled means you are entitled to reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 states that legally employers have to: “make reasonable adjustments to any elements of the job which place a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage compared to non-disabled people.”

In America, under the Americans with Disabilities Act employers with 15 employees or more legally have to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. In some states, this applies to businesses with fewer than 15 employees.

Reasonable accommodations might include things like:

  • Providing disabled parking
  • Allowing you to do some tasks seated
  • Allowing a flexible work schedule
  • Adjusting tasks to better suit your abilities
  • Making documents more accessible (for example, providing bigger font sizes or audio recordings of writing)
  • Changing your work desk or working area to make it more accessible for your needs
  • Giving you extra time to do tasks

It’s important to know your rights and talk to your employer – they may be able to make your working life more manageable for you. 

Coming to Terms With Being Disabled

Thinking of yourself as disabled and coming to terms with that can be difficult, especially if you were previously healthy. Society puts such a big stigma on the word disabled.

It’s okay to give yourself time to adjust to this idea and even to grieve your ‘old self’ before chronic pain.

I have been disabled for many years and grew up with a disabled parent, so it was easier for me to accept when I was first diagnosed with a chronic illness. However, I know that for some people it can be tough to get your head around.

It’s important to understand that disability doesn’t mean weakness or make you a failure. Some of the strongest people I know are disabled.

Once you have come to accept your disability, it’s something you can be proud of. You’re doing your best to thrive despite your condition and that’s incredible!

Chronic Pain Can Be a Disability

There’s no doubt that chronic pain can be disabling to live with. If your chronic pain stems from a diagnosable chronic condition, you will likely be legally disabled. If your chronic pain is a standalone symptom, you may not be classed as disabled depending on where you live and how much medical evidence you have.

The legal system needs to be updated to keep up with current research that clearly shows chronic pain can cause disability.


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  • Mental Health Foundation, (2023), “The cost of diagnosed mental health conditions: statistics”.
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  • Duygu Gulseren, Firat K. Sayin, Nick Turner, E. Kevin Kelloway, (2022), “Chronic pain and pain disability: The next frontier for healthy and effective organization”. Organizational Dynamics
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  • ADA National Network, (2018), “Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace”.

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