How to Get a 20% VA Rating for Your Back Disability

Many veterans have back disabilities as a result of their military service.  Unfortunately, proving that you have pain in your back from an injury is not necessarily sufficient to get a rating from VA.

VA has particular rules that determine the correct VA rating for back disabilities.  Understanding these rules can help improve your chances of receiving the correct rating.

VA uses the term “thoracolumbar spine” to refer to what most people would call their back.  This articles will focus on VA’s rules for rating disabilities of the thoracolumbar spine.

Man in chair holding lower back in pain What is the thoracolumbar spine?

The thoracolumbar spine is what most people refer to as their back.  Think of it as your middle and lower back.

It is actually composed of two parts of the spine:

  1. The thoracic spine which is made up of twelve vertebral bodies
  2. The lumbar spine which is made up of five vertebral bodies

The other part of your spine is what we would commonly call your neck.  VA uses medical terminology and refers to your neck as your “cervical spine”.  Look for me to discuss how VA rates cervical spine disabilities in future articles.

How to get a 20 percent VA disability rating for your thoracolumbar spine

VA has two methods from rating thoracolumbar spine disabilities.  The most common way that VA rates thoracolumbar spine disabilities is a range of motion formula.   VA looks at the flexion that you have at your waist and whether is is limited as a result of your back disability.

A 20 percent rating requires your flexion to be pretty limited.  VA defines it as forward flexion greater than 30 degrees but less than 60 degrees.  So, if your back disability significantly limits your ability to bend at the waist, you could qualify for a 20 percent rating or higher.  VA will often looks to the examinations from your doctors or physical therapists to determine whether and how much your range of motion is limited.

Middle aged man holding lower back in pain Are there other ways to get a 20 percent VA rating for the thoracolumbar spine?

Sometimes, I find that veterans with significant back disabilities have pretty good range of motion.  So, they do not qualify for a 20 percent rating under VA’s range of motion rules.

VA does provide three other ways to get a 20 percent thoracolumbar VA rating.

  1. Combing range of motion of the thoracolumbar spine not greater than 120 degrees
  2. Muscle spasm or guarding severe enough to result in an abnormal gait or abnormal spinal contour such as scoliosis, reversed lordosis, or abnormal kyphosis
  3. Intervertebral disc syndrome with incapacitating episodes of at least 2 weeks but less than 4 weeks in the last year

What does VA mean by combined range of motion?

Combined range of motion focuses on range of motion other than your forward flexion.  The doctor should measure forward flexion, extension back, your lateral, which is again the side to side bending, and then rotation which is twisting on an axis.

The doctor should take measurements of each of those. If the measurements add up to be not greater than 120 degrees total, then that would also qualify you for a 20 percent rating.

How can I qualify for a 20 percent rating for an abnormal gait or abnormal spinal contour?

Some veterans have good range of motion but have an abrnormal gait or abnormal spinal contour from muscle spasm or guarding.  These veterans can also qualify for a 20 percent rating.

If your back disability affects how you walk, you might certainly qualify for this rating.  Also, diagnostic testing performed by your doctor may demonstrate scoliosis, reversed lordosis, or abnormal kyphosis.

Man with his hand on his head having trouble sleeping from pain

What does VA mean by incapacitating episodes?

As I mentioned above, veterans can also qualify for a 20 percent VA rating by showing at least 2 weeks of incapacitating episodes in the last year.   This applies most often to veterans who have periods where their back flares up or goes out, and they simply are unable to do much of anything.  This really takes a toll on veterans and should be factored in by VA.

Fortunately, VA does factor that in. It’s another way to rate a spinal condition.  Having back pain or some limitations alone will not be enough to qualify for the 20 percent VA rating since VA defines incapacitating episodes.

In VA’s rules, incapacitating episodes means signs and symptoms that your doctor says require bedrest that your doctor orders.  The good news is that the episodes do not have to be two weeks in a row.  You just have to have a total of at least two weeks in the last year.

VA’s rules also provide that VA should use whichever method of rating your thoracolumbar spine which provides you with the higher rating.  So, if you qualify for a ten percent using range of motion and a 20 percent using incapacitating episodes, then VA should assign you a 20 percent rating.

Can I get a rating higher than 20 percent if my back disability is more severe?

Yes.  You can qualify for a VA rating between 40 percent and 100 percent depending on how severe your disability is.  I discuss thoracolumbar VA ratings of 40 percent or higher in this article.

Travis Studdard is an attorney who focuses on representing veterans in VA disability compensation claims.  He regularly writes about issues that are important to veterans and their families.

You can subscribe to his Veterans Disability channel on YouTube.

Rita BarnesRita Barnes
00:03 20 Jan 22
This is a great group of people who really care about your well being. They all treated me as though I was family and helped me with my work comp case in more ways than the average would have.Thank you Jason and Thank you Tina! For doing an awesome job.
Cortex ButlerCortex Butler
18:09 29 Dec 21
I am a Veteran of United States Air Force and was awarded my first 30% in 1996 and have been fighting for my rating for 26 years I came to Perkins and Studdard in 2019 while my mom was in a terrible incident and was given to much anesthesia and through GODS Grace she was spared her life, She is disabled since 2018 and I have been struggling with my life and issues and yet I didn’t call the law firm every 10 minutes or call being rude anytime, I mentioned this as I got to know Jessica more than just a phone call and Mr Studdard was always available when not working on other cases or in court, They always called back and Never had to do a call back, My Review is Simple in Life there peaks and valleys and it doesn’t stop because you have issues, Perkins & Studdard took my case in 2019 in 2021 I received my 100% from VA, I Was Never Rude, I was Never Promised Success, I Was Never Lied too and I was Always Treated with Respect, Friendliness, and Kindness the Real Stuff not a (Money Thing) If You want a firm that Cares about the Client and will work on your case even through a pandemic, Will not lie, will not promise anything will communicate your case and will Give you their Best ALWAYS THIS IS THE Best Law Firm for VETS HANDS DOWN Perkins and Studdard THERE IS NO OTHER 100% we had 5 calls Total Case That’s Taking Care Of Business
annetteMomma nokesannetteMomma nokes
14:29 12 Sep 16
Jason and his paralegal Lisa were on point and on top of their game when it came to handling my worker's comp. injury case. I tried going it alone and the insurance carrier pushed me around. They denied extra physical therapy. They denied injections the doctor recommended to ease my pain. When I turned my case over to Jason things turned around, QUICK. They were at all times attentive and on top of my case. I cannot recommend Jason and his staff enough. If you are hurt at work, this is the firm you want on YOUR side.
Sheila KirklinSheila Kirklin
23:11 12 May 16
Jason Perkins, was my lawyer in a workers comp. case, my case has settled now, and I am very happy for all Jason and his office hard work on my case, he was always there to help me out with any questions that I had or help I needed. Jason is a excellent lawyer and if I ever need another one I would only go to Perkins,Because I believe they would be able to help me in any situation I am in need of..
Anna PabonAnna Pabon
23:16 13 Sep 15
I recommend Perkins Law Firm. Everyone I came in contact with there was very nice. Kim was very helpful and any time I had a question she made sure I got an answer. Ann Margaret really took the time to explain things to me.

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