10 Most Common Disabilities for Veterans
Veterans often experience certain medical conditions at higher rates than their civilian counterparts as a result of events that occurred during military service. Due to the physical intensity required by military service, many veterans face musculoskeletal conditions—in fact, conditions of the musculoskeletal system are the most common types of disabilities veterans face. Other common disabilities include those of the auditory system, likely caused by factors such as gunfire, and mental health disorders caused by the potential stressors military service can bring.
According to VA’s Annual Benefits Report for Fiscal Year 2018, there are approximately 5.2 million disabled veterans with over 25 million disabilities, averaging about 5 disabilities per veteran. Here are the most common disabilities among the veteran population:
1. Bilateral Hearing Loss
Bilateral hearing loss essentially affects all veterans in all different eras of service. While hearing loss is most often thought of as being associated with combat, it can also be due to other causes. For example, if a veteran’s military occupational specialty (MOS) involved working around aircraft all day, they would likely be exposed to loud engine noises. As a result, they might be at a heightened risk of experiencing hearing loss later in life. Most often, veterans are assigned a 10 percent disability rating for their service-connected hearing loss.
The rating is primarily based on two auditory tests:
- Speech discrimination – assesses how well an individual understands words / what someone else is saying
- Pure tone threshold – indicates the softest sound audible to an individual at least 50 percent of the time
Such tests are important because VA has specific criteria that a veteran’s hearing loss must meet in order to be considered a disability for compensation purposes. Simply having a doctor say that you suffer from hearing loss does not necessarily mean it is severe enough for VA criteria. Instead, it must rise to a certain level to be considered a disability that VA will grant service connection for.
Tinnitus is the second most commonly claimed condition for VA disability benefits. This condition often involves hearing sound when no external sound is present, and is typically described as ringing in the ears.
Importantly, veterans do not need a specific diagnosis of tinnitus to be granted service connection. Instead, veterans can provide a subjective report of their symptomatology and that is enough to show that you meet the rating criteria. From there, VA will decide if your tinnitus is related to your service.
The highest scheduler rating for tinnitus is 10 percent and it is very rare that veterans will receive higher than that on an extraschedular basis.
3. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that results from experiencing a distressing, shocking, or otherwise traumatic event. Nearly 1.7 million veterans are service-connected for mental health conditions, of which 1 million are service-connected for PTSD specifically. To be granted service connection for PTSD, veterans must demonstrate the following:
- A current diagnosis of PTSD
- An in-service event (known as a stressor)
- A nexus opinion linking the current diagnosis of PTSD and the in-service event
In addition to the typical elements of service connection, veterans must verify a stressor, or the in-service event that they are claiming caused their PTSD. The stressor must be corroborated in order to show that it happened. To do so, veterans can provide lay statements detailing the in-service event.
Importantly, stressors do not have to be related to combat. Instead, veterans can get service-connected for PTSD as a result of non-combat related events (e.g. military sexual trauma).
Additionally, veterans should file a claim for PTSD even if they do not yet have a diagnosis. VA may find that they have another mental health condition that warrants a diagnosis and subsequently service connection. It is also possible that veterans may be diagnosed with multiple mental health conditions (e.g. anxiety, depression, and PTSD).
However, veterans will only receive one combined rating that takes into account the full level of impairment. All mental health conditions are rated under 38 CFR § 4.130, on a scale from 0 to 100 percent. Veterans are most commonly assigned a 70 percent rating for PTSD. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the way the rating schedule is set up, there is a lot of room for veterans to show they meet a higher rating. Lay testimony, medical evidence, and expert opinions are all valuable types of evidence that can be used to support an increased rating.
Vietnam-era veterans have the highest percentage of veterans service-connected for PTSD, with Persian Gulf War veterans being a close second. While these groups have higher percentages, they are not the only ones who can be afforded service connection. Rather, veterans serving in any period or era can also be afforded VA disability benefits for PTSD.
Veterans can receive service connection for scars that result from their time in military service, or from service-connected conditions that required surgery. When considering scars, it is common to think of gunshot and/or combat wounds as the cause. However, it is actually more common to see scars as secondary to surgeries, as mentioned above. Veterans with service-connected orthopedic conditions may undergo surgery that results in a scar.
VA disability ratings for scars are usually pretty low as the criteria to get above a 0 percent rating is very difficult. To do so, veterans must have more than one or two scars that are painful or unstable (i.e. losing the skin covering the scar). This tends to be uncommon. VA does not rate scars based on where they are located, but the percentage of the body that is covered by the scars. Overall, scars affect nearly 10 percent of all veterans.
5. Limitation of Flexion of the Knee
Knee conditions are very common amongst veterans. Limitation of flexion of the knee is just one type of knee condition that can receive service-connected compensation. Specifically, limitation of flexion of the knee refers to the range of motion of the knee as the veteran moves it or curls it inward towards the body. Generally speaking, VA rates this condition based on the range of motion that exists as the veteran moves their knee in that direction.
The most common rating VA assigns for limitation of flexion of the knee is 10 percent. This low evaluation speaks to how VA rates knee conditions. Namely, there are strict rating criteria and specifications veterans must meet to have their knee conditions rated at certain levels. It is not just about how painful it is or how much it hurts. Instead, VA will literally measure the range of motion and assign a rating based largely off that alone.
Within VA’s regulations, veterans should be afforded a 10 percent rating even if they do not necessarily meet the specific diagnostic code criteria for limited range of motion, but can otherwise show they have painful motion. However, VA often makes mistakes when it comes to this.
VA should pay attention to other indicators of functional loss such as weakness, interference with sitting and standing, pain on motion, and fatigability. This does not always occur and as a result, veterans sometimes receive lower VA disability ratings than they deserve. While knee conditions affect all eras of veterans, Gulf War veterans were found to be most affected.
6. Lumbar and Cervical Strains
Broadly speaking, lumbar and cervical strains refer to back and neck pain, respectively. These conditions are also typically rated based on limitation of motion pertaining to forward flexion (i.e. how far veterans can bend over). However, sometimes VA rates these conditions based on incapacitating episodes. VA has a duty to rate veterans based on whatever warrants the higher disability rating.
Once again, Gulf War veterans are most affected by lumbar and cervical strains. Gulf War veterans are on the list a lot in terms of which era is affected the most by these commonly experienced conditions. This could be due to how long the Gulf war spans and consequently, the large number of veterans within this group. Other factors such as the physical training, heavy gear, and lack of proper shoes in service.
7. Paralysis of the Sciatic Nerve
Paralysis of the sciatic nerve is very common amongst veterans primarily due to the fact that it is linked to back and neck issues. When rating back and neck conditions, VA is required to rate any neurological residuals. Therefore, paralysis of the sciatic nerve is often granted without veterans needing to file additional claims.
This condition involves a reduction in movement and feeling of certain limbs. The most common rating for sciatic nerve issues is also 10 percent because VA rates it based on whether it is mild, moderate, or severe. However, the criteria is very vague and open-ended seeing as there are no definitions for those terms. As a result, veterans do not know what is required for a higher rating.
Lay evidence may be helpful in demonstrating that a sciatic nerve condition is more severe than the disability evaluation reflects. Vietnam veterans are most affected by paralysis of the sciatic nerve, which may be related to their Agent Orange exposure. Many Vietnam veterans have diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, which also involves paralysis and nerve problems. As such, paralysis of the sciatic nerve tends to be a related residual.
8. Limitation of Motion of the Ankle
When rating limitation of motion of the ankle, VA primarily looks to diagnostic code 5271. Similar to the other orthopedic conditions mentioned above, the rating criteria deals with the range of motion of the ankle. VA then rates the condition based on the limitations to the range of motion.
Veterans usually receive either a 10 or 20 percent disability rating. A 10 percent rating consists of moderate symptomology while a 20 percent rating consists of marked conditions. There are no definitions as to what these criteria mean either, which results in an absence of analysis or rationale in deciding which evaluation is appropriate. This ambiguity gives veterans an opportunity to appeal and argue for an increased rating.
Migraines are recurring, intense, and frequent headaches that can be completely debilitating. Oftentimes it causes people to lock themselves in their room with complete darkness and no sound. Furthermore, it prevents people from working and going about their day to day activities. Service-connected migraines are rated under diagnostic code 8100 based on the frequency, severity, duration, and impact on daily life. All of these factors are outlined in the rating criteria and incorporated into how VA evaluates the veteran’s migraine condition.
In addition to direct service connection, veterans may also receive service connection for their migraines on a secondary basis. Namely, if the veteran has a separate service-connected condition that then causes or aggravates their migraine condition, secondary service connection may be warranted. For example, a veteran’s orthopedic condition (e.g. neck strain) is so painful that over time it leads to intense migraine headaches. Here, the veteran may be able to link their migraine headaches to their service-connected orthopedic condition in order to receive VA disability benefits. Another common example involves migraine headaches resulting from service-connected traumatic brain injury (TBI).
10. Degenerative Arthritis of the Spine
Degenerative arthritis of the spine is the final common condition for which veterans receive VA disability benefits. The rating criteria is based on the joint involved and whether it is major or minor. However, veterans are often not rated under the arthritis diagnostic code as it usually results in such a low rating. If veterans also have limited range of motion or incapacitating episodes, it could result in a higher rating.
VA should acknowledge both diagnostic codes involved (i.e. arthritis and limitation of motion). Veterans are sometimes confused as to why VA is not rating them under the arthritis diagnostic code. Ultimately, it is because has to defer to the rating code that gives veterans the most compensation.
Call Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD for a Free Case Evaluation
If your VA disability claim has been denied, do not give up the fight. Our experienced VA disability attorneys may be able to help you. Contact a member of our team for a free case evaluation today at (401) 753-6359.
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