Can I Get Disability for Degenerative Joint Disease?

Learn about how to get disability benefits for degenerative joint disease in the hands, shoulders, neck, hips, knees, or lower back.

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Degenerative joint disease (DJD) causes inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues brought on by the wearing down of the protective cartilage at the ends of the bones. It's also known as osteoarthritis, degenerative arthritis, or degenerative arthropathy. 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, decreased joint motion, stiffness, and swelling. These symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe.

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 degenerative joint disease may include the use of anti-inflammatory medications, pain relief medications, physical therapy, and orthopedic devices such as braces and walkers. In severe cases, individuals might undergo a joint replacement surgery like hip replacement or knee surgery.

Getting Disability Benefits for Degenerative Joint Disease

If you can't work because your degenerative joint disease makes it difficult for you to walk or use your hands, you might be able to get monthly disability benefits through Social Security. The quickest way to get disability benefits is to provide evidence that you meet the requirements of one of Social Security's disability "listings" (medical conditions listed in Social Security's Listing of Impairments). If you don't, you'll likely have to do a bit more work to prove you're unable to return to any type of work due to your limitations.

Social Security has two disability listings that can apply to degenerative joint disease: abnormality of a major joint (1.18) and reconstructive surgery or surgical arthrodesis of a major weight-bearing joint (1.17).

Abnormality of a Major Joint

You might meet the listing for having an abnormality of a major joint if you have degenerative joint disease in your hips, knees, ankles, feet, shoulders, elbows, wrists, or hands. To meet the requirements of this listing, you need medical documentation that you can't:

  • walk without a walker, two canes or crutches, or a wheelchair or scooter that requires both hands, or
  • use one hand due to arthritis, and you need the other to operate a one-handed wheelchair, cane, crutch, or other device, or
  • use either arm or hand to begin, sustain, and finish work.

In addition, you need to have a history of joint pain or stiffness and a loss of motion or instability in the affected joint. Finally, you must have an obvious deformity in a joint that shows up during a doctor's physical examination or in medical imaging (such as an X-ray or MRI). Social Security is looking for an abnormality like narrowing of a joint space, destruction of bone, joint contracture, or ankylosis (when your joints or bones fuse).

Surgery of the Ankle, Foot, Knee, or Hip

Alternatively, you can qualify under the listings for degenerative joint disease if you've had reconstructive surgery or surgical arthrodesis (fusion) of a major weight-bearing joint. Your major weight-bearing joints include your hips, knees, ankles, and feet.

To meet the requirements of this listing, you must need a walker or two canes or crutches to walk or, if you can't walk, you must need a wheelchair or scooter that requires the use of both hands.

Your physical limitations must last or be expected to last for at least 12 months following your surgery.

If you have degenerative joint disease in your hips, you may find it helpful to read our article on getting disability for degenerative hip joints or, if you've had a hip replacement, getting disability after hip surgery.

Joint Disease in the Neck or Back

If you have degenerative joint disease in your spine or neck, you need to have spinal stenosis (narrowing) or nerve root compression to qualify under the spinal disorder listings. For details on the requirements of these listings, see our articles on disability benefits for back problems and benefits for neck 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. For instance, you might have to use a cane and have a lot of pain walking and standing, but you don't have a documented need for two canes or a walker. In this case, you'd have trouble doing a lot of jobs, but you wouldn't meet one of the above listings.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will look at your "residual functional capacity" (RFC) to see what activities you can still do. For instance, 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. If you have problems with your wrist or hand joints, you may not be able to type, write, or work with small objects.

Social Security will compare what you can still do with your prior job skills and education. The agency will try to find 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.

Medical Evidence Required to Prove Disability Due to DJD

The main way that Social Security evaluates your claim is based on your medical evidence—lab tests, x-rays or MRIs, and your doctors' records, and any hospital or outpatient surgery records. Evidence could also include a questionnaire completed by your doctor or even the results of an independent examination by a doctor Social Security sends you to.

For claims involving degenerative joint disease, Social Security will look for:

  • physical examination reports with detailed descriptions of orthopedic, neurologic, or other objective findings
  • imaging and diagnostic tests showing evidence of joint abnormalities
  • reports of your subjective symptoms, such as how often you are in pain and whether you can perform activities of daily living (ADLs)
  • a documented need for an assistive device, such as a cane or walker
  • operative reports for any surgical procedures, and
  • the history of any treatments you've tried and what the results were.

Applying for Social Security Disability Due to Degenerative Joint Disease

You can apply for Social Security disability in person at your local SSA office (after the COVID-19 pandemic ends and offices re-open), by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213, or you can apply online at www.ssa.gov/disabilityonline. To complete the disability application, you'll need detailed information, including:

  • contact information and dates of treatment for all of your medical providers
  • the dates of any medical tests
  • the names and addresses for all of your employers in the last 15 years, and
  • the dates you were employed for the last 15 years.

For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.

If you'd like help with your application, consider working with a legal professional. Click for a free case evaluation with an SSDI expert to determine whether your degenerative joint disease is severe enough to qualify for benefits.

Updated October 25, 2021

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