Slepian Smith, PLLC

Migraine awareness: Headaches can cause disability

At our law firm, we fight for people whose headaches prevent them from working, either alone or in combination with other physical and mental impairments. Migraines and other headaches can cause excruciating pain and a variety of other difficult symptoms that may prevent productive work activity and can form the basis for an award of Social Security Disability Insurance, known as SSDI.

The American Migraine Foundation has established June as nationally recognized Migraine and Headache Awareness Month. In that spirit, we discuss the kinds of symptoms that victims of severe headaches endure.

What is a migraine?

According to the Mayo Clinic, a migraine headache may cause "severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on one side of the head." During a migraine, a person may be nauseous to the point of vomiting and sensitive to sound, touch, smell and light.

Migraines sometimes last for several days and can prevent normal activity. They may come on only occasionally or regularly.

Some migraine sufferers get auras before or during migraines. An aura is a visual disturbance that may include flashing light, loss of vision or blind spots. Accompanying symptoms may include trouble talking, numbness or tingling, hearing sounds or music, or uncontrollable movements.

After a migraine, the person may need a day to recover.

The phenomenon is much more common in women (with hormonal involvement) and may have a genetic component. Brain chemical imbalance and brainstem functioning may be involved. Other triggers may include stress, alcohol, caffeine, highly stimulating sensory input (loud noise, strong smell, bright light and so on), exertion, weather changes, food additives, sleep pattern changes, certain foods, oral contraception and vasodilators (medicine to open blood vessels).

Legal representation especially helpful in SSDI applications

Because migraines are highly subjective in nature and not easily measurable in an objective way, proving to the Social Security Administration or SSA that a claimant experiences disabling headaches as well as accompanying severe pain and other related symptoms can be an upward battle. For these reasons, it is smart to consult an attorney about representation in a Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income application or appeal based on migraines or other types of headache.

Legal standards and procedures bind the SSA in how it handles applications with subjective complaints like headaches. An experienced lawyer will know how to hold the agency's feet to the fire.

For example, if the claimant's treating doctor supports the migraine diagnosis and treats the claimant for those symptoms, did the SSA use clear reasoning and was there substantial evidence to support the agency refusing to give weight to the treating or examining physician's opinions? If a claimant says their migraine symptoms are debilitating and the SSA did not credit that testimony, did the agency properly discount those assertions? Did the claimant present objective medical evidence of impairment that could reasonably produce the pain and other subjective symptoms?

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