A MELAS diagnosis can be incredibly frightening. In addition to having to face an array of debilitating symptoms that can cause long-term damage and even death, MELAS patients are often unable to work. This can lead to many sleepless nights spent worrying about financial stability. While the financial cost Doctor and patient associated with MELAS treatment can be substantial, patients may not have the shoulder the burden on their own. Patients with MELAS may qualify for monthly financial benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Understanding MELAS and how a knowledgeable and experienced disability attorney can help may benefit you when applying for SS benefits.

What Is MELAS?

MELAS is an acronym for mitochondrial encephalomyopathy, lactic acidosis, and stroke-like episodes. It is a rare mitochondrial disorder that can affect numerous bodily systems but primarily affects the brain, nervous system, and muscles. Caused by the mutation of genes in DNA's mitochondria cellular structures, the symptoms of MELAS can appear at any age, although they usually begin in early childhood when patients are between 2 and 15 years old. Common symptoms associated with MELAS include:

  • Muscle pain and weakness
  • Appetite loss
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures


Stroke-like episodes are also common among MELAS patients. These episodes carry their own range of symptoms, which include:

  • Hemiparesis (temporary muscle weakness that occurs on one side of the body)
  • Abnormal vision
  • Altered consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Severe migraine-like headaches


Over time, these stroke-like episodes can damage the brain, causing:

  • Vision loss
  • Movement problems
  • Dementia


Most MELAS patients also have an accumulation of lactic acid in their blood, spinal fluid, and brain known as lactic acidosis, which can cause:

  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Involuntary muscle spasms
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Hearing loss
  • Diabetes
  • Heart or kidney dysfunction
  • Hormonal imbalances


While there is no cure for MELAS, many of the symptoms can be managed with the help of prescription drugs and other treatments.

Applying for Social Security Disability If You Have MELAS

Some mitochondrial disorders are included in the SSA's “Blue Book” Listing of Impairments, and patients with MELAS may quality for an expedited review of their application under the administration's Compassionate Allowance guidelines. When applying for SSA benefits, applicants must submit medical records and clinical findings documenting their condition. Accepted documentation can include:

  • Blood or urine tests showing lactic acidosis
  • The results of muscle biopsies
  • Lab tests showing results of genetic chromosome testing
  • Brain scans


It may also be helpful to submit a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form with your application. Completed by the doctor who diagnosed or treats your MELAS, the RFC form is an in-depth evaluation of your condition and treatment options, as well as the impact this has on your ability to work and engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA). It is one of the main criteria the SSA uses when determining eligibility for benefits.

The Social Security Rulings (SSR) defines RFC as “a medical assessment of what an individual can do in a work setting in spite of the functional limitations and environmental restrictions imposed by all of his or her medically determinable impairment(s). RFC is the maximum degree to which the individual retains the capacity for sustained performance of the physical-mental requirements of jobs.” Ultimately, a claims assessor will use the RFC to make a determination about your ability to do work-related activities and the limitations based on your medical condition.

Do You Need Help Applying for SS Benefits?

When you're faced with the diagnosis of a life-threatening medical condition such as MELAS, it may be challenging to figure out the SSA's complex application system on your own. The skilled disability attorneys at Keefe Disability Law can help to ensure that your application meets the SSA's criteria before you submit it. And, in the event that your application is denied, we're ready to assist you and fight for the benefits you need and deserve. Request a free copy of our report, The Five Most Frequently Asked Questions About Social Security Disability, or contact our office in Framingham today for a no-cost evaluation of your case.

Are You Looking for a Social Security Disability Attorney in Boston, MA?

If you are looking to apply for social security disability, you need to speak with an experienced social security disability lawyer as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Natick Office directly at 508.283.5500 to schedule your free consultation.


John L. Keefe
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Founding Attorney, Massachusetts Social Security Disability Lawyer