Am I Eligible for Social Security Disability Benefits for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

Woman in bed with her hands on her head

By Lori B. Painter, Lawyer at Metzger Wickersham

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), is a disorder that affects a person’s nervous system and is associated with debilitating fatigue.

Population Health Metrics estimates that more than 2 million Americans have CFS, many of whom have not been diagnosed. It can occur at any age and can affect children as well as adults. Women are twice as likely as men to have CFS, and it is more common in people who are 40 years of age and older.

CFS is often mentally and emotionally debilitating, and people with this diagnosis are twice as likely to be unemployed as a person with fatigue that does not meet formal criteria for CFS. In 2002, the estimated annual cost of lost productivity from CFS was $9.1 billion dollars in the United States.


In addition to economic hardships, people with CFS are more likely to report functional impairment. According to Inside Patient Care, CFS is characterized by extreme fatigue that lasts for at least six months, that affects daily activities and that can't be fully explained by an underlying medical condition. The fatigue worsens with physical or mental activity, but doesn't improve with rest. Consult with your doctor if you have persistent or excessive fatigue.

Mayo Clinic reports that other characteristic symptoms include:

  • Sleep that isn't refreshing
  • Difficulties with memory, focus and concentration
  • Dizziness that worsens with moving from lying down or sitting to standing

Symptoms of CFS can vary from person to person, and the severity of symptoms can fluctuate from day to day. Additional signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sore throat
  • Headaches
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck or armpits
  • Unexplained muscle or joint pain
  • Extreme exhaustion after physical or mental exercise


The cause of CFS is still unknown. Some people may be born with a predisposition for the disorder, which is then triggered by a combination of factors. Potential triggers include:

  • Viral infections
  • Immune system problems
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Physical or emotional trauma

Diagnosis and Treatment

Currently, there is no single test to diagnose CFS, nor is there a cure for the disorder. Doctors make a diagnosis by excluding all other illnesses after a person has had symptoms continually for six months. The person’s results from routine medical tests will often be normal, but additional tests will show abnormalities.

People who receive an early diagnosis and early treatment tend to do better. It is important to find a doctor who is not only sympathetic to CFS, but can suggest ways to manage with the condition. Treatment choice will vary and will depend on the results of the additional testing.

How to File for Social Security Disability

Some people with CFS are able to work and have a job that is flexible and meets their needs. If you are employed, it's important to learn about managing CFS symptoms and coping with side effects.

In addition, if you have tried different jobs and are unable to work, you might consider applying for disability through the Social Security Administration (SSA).

According to federal regulations, to qualify for disability you must prove that you have a severe impairment. You also need to prove that the impairment limits your physical or mental ability to do work, your illness must prevent you from working for at least a year. You must not be earning more than $1,310 per month.

If you are filing for Social Security Disability based on CFS it is extremely important to have detailed medical records from your treating doctors. Your records should include all:

  • lab tests results
  • hospitalizations
  • doctor visits
  • physician reports
  • and a list of medications.

It is also helpful to have your treating physician (including psychiatrist or psychologist) fill out a residual functional capacity (RFC) form documenting your physical and mental limitations.

You must be unable to do your previous work or any other substantial gainful activity. Your age and education are considered, as well as your remaining abilities and your work experience.

If your condition doesn't interfere with basic work-related activities, your claim won't be considered. Instead, Social Security will find that you are not disabled.

If your complications from CFS cause lifestyle and work-related restrictions, it is in your best interest to speak to an experienced Social Security attorney to evaluate the potential case. Contact Metzger Wickersham for a free consultation to help you navigate the legal issues with filing for Social Security benefits.

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