• Justin S. Raines

What are exetional and nonexertional limitations?


In the Social Security disability five-step sequential evaluation, if you are not performing substantial gainful activity (SGA) and your severe physical or mental impairments do not meet or equal a listing, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). The RFC is used at step four and step five to determine if the claimant can perform his past relevant work (step four) or any other work that exists in significant numbers in the regional or national economy (step five).


This is true whether you apply for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (SSD, SSDI, or DIB) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).


According to Social Security rulings, an RFC can consist of both exertional limitations, nonexertional limitations, or a combination of exertional and nonexertional limitations.


What is an exertional limitation?

An exertional limitation is one that addresses a person’s strength. An exertional limitation affects a person’s ability to lift, carry, push, pull, stand, walk, or sit. If a person is limited in their ability to perform these activities on a full-time basis—roughly 40 hours a week—then the person has exertional limitations.


What are exertional categories of work?

When describing a claimant’s exertional limitations, the SSA uses four categories of work that increase in their demands. These categories are sedentary, light, medium, and heavy work. At one extreme, sedentary work is performed mostly sitting and involves lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling up to 10 pounds occasionally, or up to one-third of the day.


On the other extreme, heavy work is performed mostly standing or walking and involves lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling up to 100 pounds occasionally.


A person who is limited to sedentary work has very severe limitations. Depending on a claimant’s age, education, and work background, with the help of the Medical-Vocational Rules (“Grids”), a person can win the disability case with a limitation to sedentary work, light work, or even medium work.


What is a nonexertional limitation?


A nonexertional limitation, on the other hand, affects any other ability to perform basic work activities other than strength-based activities. This includes postural limitations, like the ability to stoop or climb ramps or stairs, and other limitations like pain, depression, and anxiety.


Typical nonexertional limitations include problems using one’s hands, seeing, hearing, communicating, understanding, following directions, and getting along with others in the workplace.


The SSA is required to consider all of a claimant’s exertional and nonexertional limitations when determining RFC because each limitation, no matter how small, could prove critical to the outcome of the case. Because every disability claimants’ limitations are different, the SSA has never put together a list of every nonexertional limitation. Indeed, this undertaking is probably not possible.

An experienced Social Security disability lawyer will draw out each limitation with the disability claimant’s testimony and by pointing out the significant portions of the medical evidence to prove all of the limitations that should be included in the RFC.


If you have a severe physical or mental illness or injury, you should consult with an attorney experienced in Social Security disability for help and advice proving your case.

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