Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, occurs when the cartilage on the ends of your bones wears down. This can cause pain and stiffness in the joints, swelling, muscle weakness, and a reduced range of motion in the affected joints. Osteoarthritis can occur in any joint, but is most often found in the hands, hips, knees, or spine.
Can Osteoarthritis Qualify You for Disability?
Osteoarthritis causes pain and stiffness in the joints for many, many people as they get older (it is sometimes called degenerative arthritis), but few people qualify for disability on account of arthritic pain and stiffness. If an individual's symptoms continue to grow worse, which is especially likely for overweight people, the symptoms can severely limit an individual's mobility and can require knee or hip replacements, or they can seriously affect a person's ability to use his or her hands.
Since osteoarthritis can be found in different joints, Social Security has several "impairment listings" under which you may be evaluated: mainly the listings for back problems and joint problems. If you meet the requirements of one of these impairment listings, you will automatically be approved for benefits. If not, you could still be approved for disability if you can show that your arthritis limits your ability to function so much that you can't do the physical activity required by most jobs, such as walking, standing, or sitting for periods of time; pushing, pulling, lifting, or grasping items; or occasionally bending or stooping.
Qualifying for Disability Under the Listing for Back Problems
It is fairly common for osteoarthritis to occur in the vertebrae of the spine, but osteoarthritis in the spine qualifies for disability benefits only under certain conditions. To meet the requirements of the listing for spinal disorders, you must have a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in your spine and one of the following:
- Compression of your spinal nerve root that limits the motion of your spine.
- Narrowing of the spinal canal in the lumbar region that makes it extremely difficult to walk.
- Inflammation of the arachnoid membrane surrounding the nerves of the spinal cord that requires you to change position or posture more than once every couple of hours.
For the specific disability criteria for each of these back problems, see our individual articles on getting disability for them by visiting the links above.
Qualifying for Disability Under the Listing for Joint Dysfunction
If you have osteoarthritis but don’t meet the listing for having a disorder of the spine, you may meet the listing for having a major dysfunction of a joint. In order to meet this listing, you must have an obvious deformity in a joint: medical imaging (such as an MRI) must show joint space narrowing, ankylosis (when your joints fuse), or the destruction of bone. You must also have a history of joint pain and stiffness and a loss of motion in the joint. In addition, the dysfunction must exist in:
- one hip, knee, or ankle joint, making it extremely difficult to walk. (For example, you can't walk without a walker, two crutches or two canes, you can't climb a few stairs at a reasonable pace while using a handrail, or you can't get to work or the grocery store without another person helping you.) Or
- one shoulder, elbow, wrist, or hand in each arm, making it extremely difficult to use your hands effectively. (For example, you need someone else's help to complete activities like preparing a meal, feeding yourself, taking care of personal hygiene, or sorting and handling papers or files.)
Qualifying for Disability Based on Reduced Functional Capacity
If you have osteoarthritis but you don’t meet the criteria under any of the listings discussed above, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will look at your “residual functional capacity,” or “RFC.” Your RFC assessment is used by the SSA to determine what kind of work you are still capable of doing despite the limitations from your arthritis.
Lower extremity arthritis. If your arthritis affects your legs or your spine, you will probably be limited in walking on uneven surfaces, climbing, or squatting. In this case, your RFC assessment may limit you to no more than sedentary work. Sedentary work is mostly sit-down work -- work where you don't need to lift more than ten pounds at a time and the work is done mostly seated. However, up to two hours a day of walking or standing may be required for sedentary work, so if you have severe enough trouble with walking because of your arthritis, you may not be able to perform even sedentary work.
Upper extremity arthritis. If you have osteoarthritis in your shoulders, arms, or hands, your RFC assessment may limit the work you can do that involves lifting, reaching, typing, writing, or grabbing. This would make it difficult to do many jobs, even sedentary jobs.
If you can't do even sedentary work, the SSA should find you disabled. For more information, see our article on proving you can't do a full range of sedentary work.
If your RFC assessment is for medium, light, or sedentary work, the SSA then takes your RFC and compares the level of work it allows you to do (for example, sedentary work) 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, at that work level. If you are older than 50 or 55, the SSA is less likely to expect you to learn to do a new job, depending on your RFC and education level. For more information on how the SSA decides whether your RFC, skills, education, and age combine to deem you disabled, see our section on disability determinations based on RFCs.