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Veterans Law

Veterans (VA) Disability Benefits for Chronic Pain

August 26, 2019
veteran suffering from chronic pain seeking va disability benefits

About Chronic Pain

Chronic pain occurs when a person suffers from pain in a particular area of the body for at least three to six months.  This type of pain lasts beyond the normal amount of time that an injury takes to heal and can come from many things, including normal wear and tear, aging, and other medical conditions.  However, chronic pain can also be the result of active duty military service.  Specifically, research shows that chronic pain is more common in veterans than the non-veteran population.  Chronic pain causes a number of debilitating symptoms, including the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep impairment
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Loss of stamina and flexibility, due to decreased activity
  • Mood problems, including depression, anxiety, and irritability

Overall, chronic pain can have a significant impact on a veteran’s ability to work and perform activities of daily living.

Saunders v. Wilkie

In April 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit held that VA must award disability benefits for pain due to military service.  Prior to this decision, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) had held that pain alone without an underlying diagnosis was not compensable.  The Federal Circuit’s decision means that if a veteran has pain related to their time in service, but does not have a medical diagnosis, they can still receive VA disability benefits.  This ruling is significant because it overturns 19 years of precedent, opening up a previously closed avenue for veterans seeking VA disability compensation for chronic pain caused by their military service.

VA Service Connection for Pain

Service connection or “service-connected” is the acknowledgment by VA that a veteran’s current health condition is related to their military service.  Veterans need to establish service connection in order to receive disability compensation from VA.  Before the Saunders decision, in order to establish service connection on a direct basis, veterans typically needed to show the following:

  • A medically-diagnosed condition;
  • An in-service event, injury, or illness; and
  • A medical nexus linking the current diagnosed condition to the in-service occurrence

The Saunders decision affects the first of those three criteria: a medically-diagnosed condition.  VA can now award service connection for chronic pain that lacks a specific diagnosis, as long as that pain is connected to an event that occurred or symptom that appeared while the veteran was on active duty.  Furthermore, the veteran’s chronic pain must cause functional impairment or loss.  Subjective complaints of chronic pain are not enough to be awarded disability compensation.

How VA Rates Chronic Pain

VA does not have a specific diagnostic code or rating criteria for chronic pain.  To receive VA disability benefits for chronic pain, the symptoms caused by the chronic pain disorder must be ratable.  In other words, VA assigns ratings based on the functional impact from the service-connected condition.  Here, functional loss or impairment refers to the inability to perform the working movements of the body with normal strength, speed, coordination, and endurance.  For example, a veteran with a service-connected back condition that produces chronic pain should be able to receive VA disability compensation for problems with sleeping, standing, lifting, sitting, and walking.  As such, VA will assign a rating based on those impairments related to the chronic pain.

Submit Evidence to Support Your VA Claim for Chronic Pain

It is important to submit evidence to support your claim for service connection for chronic pain.  Evidence can be in the form of treatment records, lay statements, or nexus letters.  Specifically, it may be beneficial to submit records indicating that you receive acupuncture or massage therapy for your pain to reflect a continuation of symptomatology that requires treatment.  Veterans can also submit lay statements describing their pain and the functional loss they experience as a result.  Finally, veterans can have their healthcare provider write a nexus letter linking their chronic pain and resulting limitations to their military service.