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Can I Get Disability for Degenerative Joint Disease?

Social Security evaluates degenerative joint disease differently depending on if the arthritis is in your back or your joints.

Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is an inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It is also known as osteoarthritis or degenerative arthritis. Although DJD can occur in any joint, it most often affects the hands, shoulders, neck, hips, knees, and lower back. 

Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment of Degenerative Joint Disease

Symptoms of degenerative joint disease include pain, deceased joint motion, and stiffness. The cause of degenerative joint disease is often attributed to overuse of joints, aging, or simply wear and tear. Additionally, more than 60% of the individuals diagnosed with degenerative joint disease have a genetic predisposition to the disease. Treatment for individuals with degenerative joint disease may include the use of anti-inflammatory medications, palliative pain relief medications, and orthopedic devices such as braces and walkers.

Getting Disability Benefits for Degenerative Joint Disease

If you can't work because your degenerative joint disease impairs your ability to walk or use your hands, or has caused certain serious back problems, you might be able to get monthly disability benefits through Social Security. To receive disability benefits, you must provide evidence that you meet the requirements of one of Social Security's disability "listings" or that you are unable to return to work due to your limitations.

There are two disability listings (medical conditions listed in Social Security's Listing of Impairments) that can apply to degenerative joint disease: major dysfunction of a joint (1.02) and disorders of the spine (1.04). To qualify for disability under the joint dysfunction listing, your affected joints must be characterized by some type of physical abnormality (such as instability, subluxation, or contracture) and x-ray or MRI evidence must show either narrowing of joint spaces, destruction of bone or cartilage, or fusion of the joint. The DJD must cause you chronic pain and stiffness along with loss of range of motion in the joint and must make it very difficult to walk or use your hands effectively.

If you have degenerative joint disease in your spine, you need to have spinal stenosis, arachnoiditis, or nerve root compression to qualify under the spinal disorder listing. For details on the requirements of these conditions to qualify as disabilities, see our article on disability benefits for back problems.

If Your DJD Doesn't Meet a Disability Listing

Many cases of degenerative joint disease don’t meet the criteria of the above listings. In this case, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will look at your “residual functional capacity” (RFC) to see what movements you can still do. For instance, if you have problems with your wrist or hand joints, you may not be able to type or write, but you may be able to do a job that requires more standing or walking. If you have problems with your hip or knee joints, you may not be able to stand or walk for long but you may be able to do a sedentary job that allows you to sit most of the day. Social Security will compare what you can still do with your prior job skills and education to see if there are any jobs you know how to do, or could easily learn to do, that are within your physical limitations. To learn more about how Social Security will decide whether there are any jobs your RFC will allow you to do, see our article on RFC disability determinations.

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