Getting Disability Benefits for Hand Osteoarthritis

Disability applicants with severe hand osteoarthritis (OA) have a good chance of getting Social Security benefits, especially if they're 50 years of age or older.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney (Seattle University School of Law)

Hand osteoarthritis (OA) happens when cartilage—the connective tissue that protects your joints—wears down where two finger bones meet. OA is commonly known as degenerative arthritis because it causes a progressive decline in bone cartilage, and hands are one of the most common parts of the body for people to develop OA.

While many people with osteoarthritis experience minimal discomfort, if your hand OA becomes severe enough that it affects your ability to function at work, and you can't do another job, you might be able to receive disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Hand OA Symptoms and Treatment

Enlarged joints in the hands and crooked fingers are the characteristic symptoms of hand osteoarthritis. Hand OA generally occurs at the base of the thumb, in the joints closest to the fingertips, or the knuckles. Other common symptoms that are associated with hand OA include:

  • stiffness
  • swelling
  • pain
  • limited use of fingers, and
  • bony growths on the bones.

Treatment for hand OA usually includes:

  • pain medication
  • wearing splints or braces
  • physical therapy, and
  • steroid injections.

For people with extensive hand OA or very severe symptoms, doctors may recommend surgery (typically a bone fusion), which can relieve pain but significantly limits movement in the fingers.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits for Hand OA

You may be eligible for Social Security disability if you're unable to work full-time for longer than twelve months due to your hand OA. The SSA has two types of benefits available:

  • Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is based on your work history and how much you paid in payroll taxes.
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is needs-based and available to anybody below a certain income or asset level.

While the financial eligibility requirements for both programs are different, the definition of "disabled" is the same for both. Social Security considers you disabled if:

  • you meet a listed impairment ("medically disabled"), or
  • you're unable to work any job full-time ("vocationally disabled").

Listed impairments are conditions found in Social Security's "Blue Book" of medical disorders. If you have certain evidence in your medical record, the SSA can find you disabled without having to determine whether you can do any work.

Getting Disability for Hand OA by Meeting Listing 1.18

The Blue Book doesn't have a specific listing for hand OA. But if you have OA at the base of your thumb and it affects the joint between your wrist and hands on both hands, you may qualify for benefits under Listing 1.18, Abnormality of a major joint in any extremity.

In order to meet this listing, you'll need to provide medical documentation showing that you have such severe OA on both hands that you're unable to effectively perform fine and gross movements. Your abilities must be very seriously impaired, making everyday tasks—such as preparing a simple meal, using utensils, or picking up a piece of paper—impossible to do yourself.

Even If your hand OA doesn't meet listing 1.18, you can qualify for disability if you can show that you're unable to work at any job.

Showing You Can't Work With Hand OA

In order to determine whether you can work, Social Security will first look at your medical records and functional limitations to come up with a set of restrictions the agency calls your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is Social Security's opinion about the most you're capable of doing in a work setting.

What's In Your RFC?

A typical RFC for people with hand OA will likely involve restrictions on how long you can use your hands to do tasks such as typing or holding objects ("manipulative limitations"). The worse your OA symptoms are, the more manipulative limitations you'll have. Here's an example comparing two applicants with osteoarthritis in their hands:

Certain environmental conditions, such as exposure to cold or humid conditions, can make symptoms of OA worse. If you have documented "flare-ups" of OA in your medical records, your RFC might contain restrictions against working outside or in cold warehouses—further limiting the types of jobs you can do.

How Does Social Security Use Your RFC?

Social Security compares your current RFC with the demands of your past work to see if you could return to that kind of job. But even if you're unable to return to your previous job, you won't be able to get disability benefits if Social Security thinks you can do other types of work.

However, the SSA does consider your age, education, and experience when determining whether you can switch to a new type of job.

Age 50 and Older

Approximately 20% of people over 55 have some form of osteoarthritis. The older you are, and the fewer job skills you have, the less likely it is that the SSA will expect you to learn a new job. Social Security uses a series of disability grid rules based on your age, your RFC, your education, and your job skills to decide if you'll be expected to switch to an easier type of work.

Under Age 50

People under the age of 50 are expected to be able to change their line of work, so they generally need to show that they can't do even the easiest, sit-down jobs in order to get disability. But most sit-down jobs require a near-constant amount of fine motor skills (such as typing, filing, or writing). So if you have significant manipulative limitations, Social Security will usually rule out that kind of work for you. To learn more, read our article on showing Social Security you can't do any sit-down work.

Updated August 14, 2023

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