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VA Rating for Radiculopathy: Maximize Your Benefits

Posted on May 17, 2024 in

Injuries to your spinal cord that happen during your military service can lead to a medical condition known as radiculopathy. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) recognizes disabilities for radiculopathy for veterans’ disability benefits claim purposes.

The VA disability lawyers at Stone Rose Law can help you to know whether you have a claim for service-connected radiculopathy VA benefits, and can help you to apply for the best possible VA disability rating for radiculopathy. Call (480) 498-8998 for a free consultation today.

What are the VA Disability Ratings for Radiculopathy?

The VA rates radiculopathy disabilities in 10 percent increments. Generally speaking, you can anticipate the following disability ratings to apply depending on whether your symptoms are mild, moderate, severe, or complete:

  • Mild symptoms will usually rate a 10 or 20 percent VA disability rating.
  • Moderate symptoms often lead to a VA disability rating of 20 to 40 percent.
  • Severe symptoms, such as incomplete severe paralysis, will rate up to a 50 percent VA disability rating.
  • Complete paralysis will frequently lead to a disability rating of 60 or 70 percent.

The VA disability rating for sciatica can be up to 80 percent. The highest rating you can receive for radiculopathy is 90 percent based on complete paralysis.

Special Monthly Compensation for Loss of Use of Hand or Foot

If you lose the use of a hand or foot to the extent that it no longer functions effectively compared to using a prosthetic device, then you may qualify for Special Monthly Compensation or SMC.

Radiculopathy VA Rating and the Bilateral Factor

The bilateral factor can apply when you suffer a disabling condition on both sides of your body, such as both legs or both arms. Note that the bilateral factor does not apply to upper and lower body combinations, like an arm and a leg.

The rationale behind the bilateral factor is that when both limbs are disabled, such as both legs, it is harder for you to compensate for an injury to one limb by relying on the other.

TDIU and Radiculopathy

In some cases, even if your single or combined VA rating is less than 100 percent, you can still potentially qualify for total disability benefits through Total Disability for Individual Unemployability, or TDIU

There are three ways you can qualify for TDIU benefits when you have a radiculopathy disability:

  • First, if your radiculopathy disability rating is at least 60 percent and as a result you cannot hold down substantially gainful employment.
  • Second, if you have multiple VA ratings, with a combined disability rating of 70 percent— with one disability rating of at least 40 percent—and you cannot hold substantially gainful employment.
  • Third, in some situations when you do not qualify under either of the two above ways, the VA can still give you TDIU based on a review of your specific disability and employability situation.
Statistics on Radiculopathy VA ratings.

What is Radiculopathy?

The medical term Radiculopathy includes a variety of spinal cord conditions, commonly caused by back conditions like herniated discs, stenosis, and bone spurs that pinch a nerve root in your cervical, thoracic, or lumbar spine. 

This compressed nerve root can cause you to experience pain and discomfort often described as a feeling of numbness, tingling, or weakness.

Diagram of lower spinal cord sections.

Symptoms of Radiculopathy

How you experience radiculopathy depends on the location of the underlying nerve pinching and how severe its nature is.

General symptoms of radiculopathy include:

  • A feeling of weakness in the arms or legs.
  • Loss of range of motion in your arms, legs, shoulders, or hips.
  • A sensation of numbness or a tingling sensation in the arms or legs, sometimes radiating from the spinal area.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Pain, sometimes sharp, in your neck, back, arms, or legs, which can become worse if you cough or sneeze.
  • Trouble with bending, walking, lifting, and even standing.
  • Partial or total loss of feeling in your hands and feet.
  • Incontinence.

Not everyone experiences all of these symptoms, and sometimes symptoms come and go. Other people are seemingly asymptomatic, showing no outward symptoms of radiculopathy even though they have the condition.

Additional Effects of Radiculopathy Symptoms

It is one thing to say that radiculopathy can cause you pain and discomfort as symptoms. But when you realize what that pain and discomfort can do to restrict how you live your life, it is easy to see why the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (the VA) recognizes radiculopathy-related conditions as compensable disabilities.

For example, the pain of radiculopathy can make activities you usually do not think twice about hard to do: if the symptoms are severe enough, you can have trouble driving a car, or performing household activities, or even taking care of your basic personal needs. 

These can also affect how you interact with people, including your family, friends, and coworkers.

In more serious cases, radiculopathy symptoms can interfere with your ability to work.

Types of Radiculopathy

It is helpful to think of categorizing the different kinds of radiculopathy along two types of categories. 

The first category is what part of the spine is affected. The second category is to identify the kind of nerve damage at the site of the spinal injury. 

We look at each of these categories next.

The Location of the Spinal Injury

Doctors divide your spine into three sections:

  • Your upper back, also known as the cervical spine. 
  • Your middle back, also known as the thoracic section.
  • Your lower back, also known as the lumbar section.

A radiculopathy injury can occur in any of these three sections. So, you can be diagnosed with cervical radiculopathy, thoracic radiculopathy, or lumbar radiculopathy. The section where the injury happens will often show symptoms distinct from an injury to the other sections.

Cervical Radiculopathy

Cervical radiculopathy can result from a pinched nerve in your neck. Symptoms of cervical radiculopathy affect your shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers.

Cervical radiculopathy is diagnosed under codes 8510, 8610, and 8710.

Thoracic Radiculopathy

A pinched nerve in your middle back can lead to this condition, which is the least common of the three kinds of radiculopathy. Symptoms will affect your chest area.

The diagnostic codes for thoracic radiculopathy are the same as those for cervical radiculopathy.

Lumbar Radiculopathy

Lower back injuries are also known as sciatica, because the sciatic nerve that is usually injured in this area of your spine is the sciatic nerve. An injury to your lumbar spine will affect your hips and legs. It can also lead to incontinence.

This kind of injury is the most common form of radiculopathy in veterans.

Lumbar radiculopathy is diagnosed under codes 8520, 8620, and 8720.

The Kind of Injury to the Nerve

In addition to the location on the spine, the other factor that goes into a diagnosis of radiculopathy is the nature of the nerve injury. Here, there are three kinds of injury. In increasing severity, they are neuralgia, neuritis, and paralysis.

Neuralgia

Neuralgia is the medical term that describes a severe, shooting pain from a damaged or irritated nerve. The pain can be mild to moderate:

  • Mild symptoms can include minor pain or a tingling sensation in your affected body part, with possible minor restrictions in its range of motion.
  • Moderate symptoms involve a higher degree of pain along with a sense of numbness or a tingling sensation that interferes with your ability to fully use the affected body part.

Neuritis

Neuritis describes the inflammation that happens to a pinched or otherwise injured nerve. Neuritis symptoms include pain, tenderness, numbness, weakness, and impaired circulation.

Neuritis symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe:

  • Mild symptoms do not significantly interfere with the functional ability of the affected body part.
  • Moderate symptoms are one or more of the symptoms above that significantly affect the functional ability of the affected body part.
  • Severe symptoms include loss of sensation, muscle atrophy, and degraded reflex responses. These seriously affect the function of the affected body part.

Paralysis

Paralysis is what happens when a nerve is partly or completely unable to send signals for affected muscles to move. 

Paralysis symptoms can be incomplete or complete, as well as mild, moderate, or severe:

  • Incomplete, mild paralysis means that the affected nerve is not totally paralyzed. It also manifests itself in mild pain or a tingling sensation in the affected body part. The range of motion of the affected limb does not significantly affect its functionality.
  • Incomplete, moderate paralysis is like incomplete mild paralysis except that the pain and tingling sensations are worse and can significantly affect the functional use of the affected body part.
  • Incomplete, severe paralysis is like incomplete moderate paralysis but can be accompanied by limited blood circulation and muscular atrophy that severely affect your ability to use the affected limb.
  • Complete paralysis means that the nerve is sending no signals to the affected body part, leaving it unable to move.

Causes of Radiculopathy

The direct cause of radiculopathy is usually an injury or other condition that affects one or more vertebrae in your spine, which in turn causes inflammation or other physical pinching of the nerve root.

Some of the more common causes of radiculopathy include:

  • Herniated discs: This problem is most likely to occur in your lower back. It can also affect your neck in some cases.
  • Bone spurs: These occur when bone growth pinches down on your spinal cord. Bone spurs can result from different causes, including trauma, osteoarthritis, or other degenerative conditions.
  • Spinal ligament thickening: This can also result in nerve pinching that leads to radiculopathy.

Your active duty service could have contributed to one of these causes of radiculopathy. This is particularly true if you served in the combat arms, which can often require you to engage in strenuous and traumatic activities like jumping, lifting, pushing, and pulling.

A motor vehicle accident during your time in service can also lead to an injury to your spine.

The causes of Radiculopathy and the types of Radiculopathy.

How to Establish a VA Disability Claim for Radiculopathy

No diagnostic code exists specifically for radiculopathy. 

Instead, the VA will assess the conditions you are suffering from as part of radiculopathy and assign a specific diagnostic code based on the affected nerves and the severity of your symptoms.

To qualify for veterans’ disability benefits for radiculopathy, you will need to do all of the following:

  1. You must have a current diagnosis for a condition that the VA recognizes as being related to radiculopathy.
  2. The origin of your radiculopathy condition must be from an event that happened during your time in active military service, either directly or by aggravating a pre-existing condition.
  3. You must establish a service connection to your current diagnosis, usually in the form of a medical nexus letter that your treating doctor will write.

Your treating physician will likely use one or more relevant diagnostic tests to establish your radiculopathy condition. These can include X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and commuted tomography or CT scans.

In addition, the VA may require you to attend a compensation and pension (C&P) examination by a VA examiner, which can include more diagnostic tests and a medical exam.

Your radiculopathy condition can result as a primary result of an in-service event. Or, in some situations, it can come from another cause. 

Here are some ways that you can experience radiculopathy indirectly.

Aggravation of Pre-Existing Disability Condition

When you entered military service you may have already been suffering from a condition that, although it did not prevent your entry into service and did not at the time rise to the level of radiculopathy, becomes worse because of your conditions of service.

The preexisting condition must have been noted in your entrance exam into the military, and your military medical records should reflect a worsening of the condition during your service.

It is not necessary to show a link to an in-service event to claim an aggravated pre-existing condition, only that the worsening of the condition happened during your service.

Radiculopathy as a Secondary Service Disability Condition

A secondary disability claim is one based on an existing, VA-recognized direct service-connected condition. The VA rates secondary conditions and secondary service connection compensation the same way it does with primary service-connected conditions.

When we consider the causes of radiculopathy, it becomes plain that it does not originate by itself but is often caused by some other injury or medical condition. This makes radiculopathy a significant source of secondary service connection disability benefit claims.

Types of Service-Connected Disabilities for Radiculopathy Secondary Conditions

Here are some examples of VA disabilities that can be the basis of a secondary claim for radiculopathy:

  • Lumbosacral or cervical strain (back pain): Code 5237.
  • Spinal stenosis, which happens when your spinal column narrows and presses in on your spinal cord: Code 5238.
  • Spondylolisthesis, or segmental instability from a vertebra that has slipped out of position: Code 5239.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic condition causing your spinal joints to lock in place: Code 5240.
  • Spinal fusion, the result of vertebrae being surgically fused together: Code 5241.
  • Vertebral fracture or dislocation, in which the bones of your spine break or become misaligned because of a traumatic event: Code 5235.

How to File a Claim for Radiculopathy VA Disability Benefits

The process to make a VA disability benefits claim for service-connected disabilities begins with collecting the evidence you will need to support your benefits application. 

This includes your military records of treatment if any exist, your current medical diagnosis for radiculopathy and records of treatment, supporting letters from people who are in a position to observe the effects of the disabling condition on your day-to-day activities and your employment.

If you have VA exam results from a C&P examination, this can also be an important part of your application record.

You can file your disability benefits application with the VA up to 180 days before your discharge, or at any time following your discharge

What if the VA Denies My Radiculopathy Disability Claim?

The VA does not always approve veterans’ initial disability claims. Overall, the VA denies up to one-third of such applications.

There are many reasons why the VA might deny your disability benefits claim for radiculopathy. For example, the VA may conclude that your evidence was not enough to prove a disability or to show that it is service-connected. 

Sometimes, you might make a mistake in the application, such as filing a wrong form, which can result in an initial denial.

Ways to Appeal A Claim Denial

Fortunately, you can appeal a VA claim denial in one of three ways: making a supplemental claim, requesting a higher-level review, or requesting a formal board appeal. 

An experienced VA disability benefits attorney can help you understand what your appeal options are if your initial claim gets denied, or if you believe you should receive a higher rating, and represent you during the appeal process.

Get Experienced Legal Help With Your Radiculopathy VA Disability Claim

At Stone Rose Law, we are VA disability advocates for veterans’ disability claims. We have board-certified VA claims lawyers who serve on behalf of veterans nationwide. Our VA-accredited attorneys give you affordable, high-quality veterans appeals legal assistance.

Our veterans lawyers provide highly professional legal representation to military veterans, helping them through the VA process to receive all the veterans’ disability benefits their disability ratings entitle them to.

If you know your VA ratings, then to get an estimate of what your disability compensation could be for an existing claim, try our VA Disability Calculator.

How a Stone Rose Law Lawyer Can Help With Your Veterans Benefits

A Stone Rose Law disability lawyer can help you prepare your radiculopathy disability claim, monitor your claim status, and consult with you before disability examinations — all at no cost to you. 

If the VA denies your original claim, our VA benefits law firm will assign a VA disability appeals lawyer to help you pursue a VA appeal with the Board of Veterans Appeals while providing free representation on a contingency fee basis.

This means you won’t pay your VA disability lawyer any fees unless we win your appeal.

Call Stone Rose Law Today

For more information about how one of our VA disability lawyers can help you with your VA disability compensation claim or appeal, request a free assistance consultation at (480) 498-8998.

Or, if you prefer, you can reach us online to ask a question about veterans law, veterans disability benefits, or to set an appointment with one of our veterans lawyers for a free case evaluation.