What are the most common VA disabilities? Before answering that question, it’s important to provide some perspective. The U.S. Census reports that in 2014 nearly 30% of all veterans had “any type” of disability, while 19% of all veterans were reported as having a service-connected disability.
The Census report further breaks these numbers down, but for our purposes here it’s important to note that so many vets must contend with these issues.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has a rating process for service-connected medical issues, disabilities, and diseases. Veterans who submit claims to the VA for these issues must be evaluated by the VA and assigned a disability percentage rating.
All of these steps are fairly common knowledge for those who must navigate the system. What’s not so well-understood? Knowing what the most common VA disabilities are and what it can mean to be evaluated for them.
The most common disabilities are NOT necessarily the most highly rated–in fact, in some cases you can only earn a 10% rating from the VA for certain conditions such as hearing damage or tinnitus (see below). Why do veterans need to know what the most common claims are?
Because you might not consider yourself to be suffering from a physical or mental condition at first–until you have your symptoms, experiences, and other issues put into context.
The most common claims include hearing loss–and you might not even realize you’ve been affected. But for ANY military career field that requires work around active runways, constantly turning motors or jet engines, gunfire, ordnance, or even heating and air conditioning work can bring hearing damage over the long term.
That’s only one example of why it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with this list of the most common issues.
Hearing Damage, Hearing Loss
Tinnitus and bilateral hearing loss are two of the most common ear-associated disabilities. You will find that 10% maximum ratings are possible for tinnitus, and the same is true for hearing loss. Being diagnosed by a doctor is not enough to make the claim in this area. The VA will evaluate your hearing loss and/or tinnitus independently of other diagnoses, but will take those into account when determining your claim.
Some veterans may be rated at 0% for hearing loss–don’t be surprised if this happens to you depending on the nature of your claim, circumstances, etc. But do submit your hearing issues to the VA in your claim, regardless.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is one of the most common VA-rated disabilities. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a precise diagnosis of a specific mental state or condition. PTSD is like other mental health issues in that it exists on a spectrum.
You may experience severe PTSD, mild PTSD, or something in the middle. PTSD is caused by traumatic experiences. You don’t have to be a combat veteran to experience trauma that leads to PTSD. Any time your life or the life of a loved one is in danger, any time you have witnessed trauma (not necessarily trauma happening to YOU), or any number of other stressors (including sexual assault) can lead to PTSD.
In order to obtain a VA rating for this, you will be required to be evaluated by a VA provider. This evaluation seeks to establish that the trauma was service-connected, the severity of it, and other factors. Some sources report a PTSD rating of 70% is not uncommon.
Scarring can happen for any number of reasons–traumatic injury, surgery, lesser injuries, multiple injuries or surgeries, etc.
Scarring can be “cosmetic” or it could be more life-threatening depending on a variety of factors. VA criteria for scars is strict and many veterans may get a 0% (zero percent) rating unless there are complications–pain, unstable healing, etc. A VA rating for scars may be more associated with the size of the scarring rather than the actual location.
Scars present unique issues for veterans–you may not receive VA compensation for a post-surgery scar but you may be able to claim temporary VA disability benefits while you are healing from the operation (depending on circumstances).
On the list of VA criteria that may qualify you for such temporary disability? Surgical wounds that are slow to heal or that don’t seem to be healing properly. Other criteria apply, but it is important to know your options when seeking treatment–ask your VA rep if you are heading into surgery soon.
One of the top five most common VA disabilities, “knee problems” can be a very broad term. But specific issues such as limitation of flexion of the knee, refers to a specific problem and has a specific diagnosis. If your limited motion is due to an injury, you will need to submit documentation of that injury. If your issues are not injury related, but still include “painful motion” or other limitations, you will need to present a current diagnosis with your claim if you have one–and it’s a very good idea to obtain one. What kinds of issues are associated with VA ratings for knee problems?
- Problems with joints and muscles with pain or limited motion
- A loss of power
- Easily fatigued
- Lack of coordination
- Decreased movement or decreased control of movement
Not all knee issues are “standalone,” meaning you may have knee problems in association with other diseases, injuries, etc.
Back and Neck Pain, Spinal Issues
There are a wide variety of back and neck issues you could get a VA disability rating for; the VA is interested in how your issues affect range of motion, flexibility, and other aspects related to your ability to bend, sit, stand, work, etc.
VA claims involve a determination process to establish whether or not your back and/or neck pain issues are service related.
When making a claim in this area, be sure to list all military experience related to carrying heavy objects, working in non-ergonomically sound positions (aircraft maintainers who strain to reach engine parts or make repairs may identify well with that issue), prolonged hiking, running, or walking with fully loaded rucksacks, backpacks, etc.
When it comes to spinal issues, the concerns are similar. Cervical strain is one of the most common VA disability claims for veterans regardless of age or sex. VA ratings in this area aren’t as high as some might expect–some sources report that more than 90% of vets who make claims in this area get ratings from zero to 20%. In some cases the rating may be higher, depending on the nature and severity of the issue.
What do you need to know about these claims?
- Musculoskeletal system conditions are evaluated on range of motion, the amount of pain in the motion, etc.
- Cervical strain is described as an injury, stretching, or tearing in neck tendons or muscles; it is also linked to repetitive use and trauma
- If you have civilian diagnoses of these issues, you will want to include them in your claim and it pays to see a doctor the moment you feel any of these issues affecting you whether currently serving or not
- Many of these issues may be associated with other injuries or trauma; don’t rule out any condition that may be associated with your injury, accident, incident, or development of chronic pain or loss of motion
A high number of veterans file claims for migraines. They are in the top ten most common VA disability claims. This is considered a “high value VA claim” as 30% ratings are not uncommon.
Getting headaches and experiencing migraines are two different things–migraine sufferers are said to experience a neurological problem that can dramatically affect the ability to work and enjoy life. What kinds of symptoms does the VA look for?
- Frequent attacks that result in complete “prostrating” (lying down) to cope with the attack
- Less frequent attacks (once per month or less) that result in complete prostrating
- Attacks that average one in two months or less resulting in complete prostrating
- Attacks less frequent than those mentioned above
The VA wants to know how these issues directly affect the veteran’s quality of life and how they can manage employment, self care, etc. Migraines may be associated with another condition which is why the VA may want you to submit any information related to other injuries, conditions, or diseases which may aggravate the condition.
Other Common Disabilities
Currently, veterans receive compensation from the VA for many different types of disabilities, injuries, and service-connected conditions. Other common conditions that lead to VA disability claims include:
- Paralysis of the sciatic nerve: sciatica can develop when pressure on a spinal nerve leads to pain that can extend from the lower back down through the buttocks and legs; severe cases may lead to paralysis.
- Sleep apnea: nearly 20 percent of veterans suffer from sleep apnea; veterans are four times more likely than other Americans to have this condition. It is possible to receive up to 100 percent disability for sleep apnea, but veterans must first undergo a sleep study to be diagnosed.
- Chemical exposures: veterans may experience a number of different chemical exposures during their military service, which can lead to health issues such as cancer. These chemicals can include: Agent Orange, asbestos, mustard gas, radiation exposure, or specific environmental hazards from serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, or Atsugi, Japan.
- Major depressive disorder: depression is a serious mental health condition, and can affect the way individuals feel, think, and behave. The VA estimates that nearly one third of all veterans have some symptoms of depression. These symptoms may include lack of motivation, appetite changes, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, irritability, and feeling sad or hopeless. Veterans experience depression at twice the rate of civilians, and it is possible to get up to a 100 percent disability rating for the condition.
- Anxiety: in 2018, nearly 2 million veterans had received mental health treatment from the VA. Approximately ten percent of veterans report elevated anxiety, which can cause difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, feeling restless, or worrying excessively. Veterans can receive up to a 100 percent disability rating for anxiety that is connected to their military service.
- Asthma and other respiratory conditions: these conditions have become more prevalent in veterans, especially those who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is thought to be due to exposure to burn pits; approximately three percent of all Iraq or Afghanistan veterans have been diagnosed with asthma.
- Diabetes: nearly a quarter of all veterans seen by the VA suffer from diabetes, a chronic disease that impacts the body’s ability to produce or properly utilize insulin. It can lead to organ damage, fatigue, weight loss, or blurry vision. For veterans who served in Vietnam and were exposed to Agent Orange, a service-connection for diabetes will be presumed.
- Secondary conditions: these include any condition that develops as a result of another, service-connected condition. These could include medication side effects or mental health issues. Secondary conditions may help a veteran reach 100 percent disability when combined with another condition with a lower rating.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News