Breathing Impairments and Disability

Posted April 9, 2014

Many people that apply for Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income benefits have a breathing impairment involved in their claim.  Although there are many different types of breathing impairments the most common are obstructive or restrictive disease,  asthma or hyper- reactive airways disease.

If a disability claimant suffers from obstructive airways disease, the test most commonly administered consists of a breathing machine that measures the ability of a patient to exhale air in order to evaluate their lung volume.  This is a volume-based study which means (considering the claimant’s height) a sliding scale has been developed that predicts abnormal breathing functions. Simply put a person who has lung capacity below that predicted for a particular height is considered to have obstructive lung disease. This means the lungs do not hold as much air as they should given the person’s size.

If a disability claimant has what is termed a “restrictive component” of their breathing ability, they are considered to have a “restrictive airways disease”.  Restrictive airways disease does not limit the amount of air that is taken into and expelled from the lungs.  A restrictive component measures the ability of lungs to transmit oxygen to the blood.

It is highly possible that a person can have normal lung volumes but still be unable to transmit the oxygen properly from the lungs to the bloodstream.  This can be due to damage to the lung walls where the oxygen exchange takes place between blood vessels in the air. A restrictive airways disease is measured by a blood gas test in which needles are implanted and the blood oxygen level is taken either in a resting or exercise test.  A person can have a perfectly normal resting blood gas test only to see the oxygen level of the blood take a steep decline with exercise. For some reason, blood gas tests are not utilized nearly as frequently as volume-based tests described above.

When Drummond Disability has a client with a breathing impairment and their lung volumes appear normal we usually advise them to have a resting and, possibly, an exercise blood gas test performed to further evaluate their condition.

Asthma is often also present in individuals with breathing problems
and may or may not be associated with other related breathing difficulties. The clinical issue in asthma related cases is the frequency and severity of the attacks and whether or not significant treatment is necessary from a physician or hospital in order to contain them. Most people use asthma inhalers and other types of medication that will deal with routine attacks.

If attacks can be contained with medication they are not normally considered to be disabling in and of themselves. In order to credibly develop an asthma related claim it is absolutely imperative that treatment be obtained from the proper medical sources on a regular basis to substantiate a disabling condition.

Hyper-reactive airways disease can often be a disabling condition or contribute to a disabling condition. Usually this problem does not really involve the lungs themselves but instead involves abnormalities with the bronchial tubes that deliver air into the lungs.   People with hyper-reactive airways disease often become extremely short of breath when exposed to respiratory irritants. Obviously some people are much more sensitive than others. In to properly develop a claim based upon hyperactive airways disease it is absolutely necessary to have medical professionals document sensitivity to even small amounts of irritants.

Many other factors that can impact breathing include but are not limited to heart disease, obesity, and musculoskeletal abnormalities.

If you would like to discuss your disability claim or the manner in which breathing problems might affect your claim, contact Drummond Disability at our toll free number, 1-800-842-0426, or visit our website at



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