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Court Rules Pain is a Disability

(This article first appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine) 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans recently ruled that pain alone, without an underlying disability, may entitle veterans to compensation benefits. This decision could affect both veterans seeking service connection and those seeking increased ratings for conditions that are already considered service connected. Prior to this decision, the federal circuit held veterans had to have a diagnosed disability that rationalized the source of their pain in order to receive Veterans Administration (VA) disability benefits.

The case was brought by Melba Saunders, a Gulf War veteran, who suffered an in-service injury to her knee. She was treated by military doctors and diagnosed with patellofemoral pain syndrome, otherwise known as knee pain. After leaving the military, Saunders filed a disability claim for her condition. The VA denied the claim, citing “patellofemoral pain syndrome...is productive of no ascertainable impairment.” This essentially means without functional impairment there is not a disability, and without a disability there is no service-connected disability compensation benefit to award.

The VA argued that the law requires them to award compensation benefits for disability resulting from duty, not injury (38 U.S.C. § 1110). The court, however, cited the definition of a disability as “impairment in the enjoyment of life or earning ability.”

The court found that “pain is a form of functional impairment” that can be considered a disability without a diagnosed condition. The court also cited the VA’s presumption of certain, chronic unexplained symptoms related to service in the Gulf War that exist for 6 months or longer qualifies these veterans for compensation benefits without regard to cause. On this basis, it was the court’s opinion that other veterans who have no specified condition should also be entitled.

Prior to Saunders, in most situations, a veteran was required to establish a medically diagnosed disability that was causally related to an in-service event, injury or disease. The decision affects the first of the three criteria – medically diagnosed disability. Saunders paves the way for the VA to grant awards for servic-econnected pain that lacks a specific diagnosis provided the pain can be linked to military service or the veteran reported a symptom that appeared during active duty.

The VA determines degrees of disability based on how functional loss or impairment impacts a veteran’s ability to perform movement with normal strength, speed, coordination and endurance. More severe disabilities
are awarded larger percentage ratings, which can result in higher compensation benefits. The decision clarifies that a claimant does not have to demonstrate a condition causes loss of use to any particular body part or function. Instead, a veteran may be able to get benefits for functional loss due to headaches, insomnia or other limitations resulting from pain, even though they cannot be measured in the same way physical limitations are.

Additionally, veterans can now be awarded compensation if a service-connected condition aggravates pain, or the condition is worsened by pain. In all instances, the pain is still required to cause a functional loss of use. Subjective complaints will not be considered.

If you believe you are eligible for a service-connected rating based on pain, or believe you may be entitled to an increase, you should contact your local veterans’ organization, an accredited attorney, a VA claims agent or Veterans Service Officer for assistance. Veterans can go to eBenefits or search the VA Office of the General Counsel’s list to find a recognized organization or individual in your area.

Thank you for your service.

– Human Relations Department