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 are older.

By , Contributing Author
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Hand osteoarthritis (OA) happens when the cartilage in the finger bones wears down where two bones meet. OA is commonly known as degenerative arthritis because it causes a steady decline in the cartilage between the bones. Hands are one of the common areas in which people develop OA.

Approximately 20% of individuals over 55 suffer from some form of OA. While most individuals can function with OA with minimal discomfort, if your hand OA becomes severe enough that it effects your ability to function at your job, and there is no other work you can do, you may be able to receive Social Security disability benefits, including Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Hand OA Symptoms and Treatment

People with hand osteoarthritis can usually be identified by the presence of enlarged joints in their hands and crooked fingers. Hand OA generally occurs in three main spots in the hand: at the base of the thumb; in the joints closest to the finger tips; or middle joints of the fingers. Symptoms that are associated with hand OA include:

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

Individuals who have OA at the base of their thumb often have a deep aching at the base of their thumb and have difficulty grasping objects or making pinching motions. Thumb OA affects individual's abilities to do a lot of fine motor skills, including turning keys, opening lids, and writing.

Treatment for hand OA can include pain medication, wearing splints or braces during certain activities, physical therapy, and steroid injections. If individuals have extremely severe symptoms, they can have their bones fused together or have a joint replaced. Bone fusion significantly limits movement in the fingers, while joint replacement may increase functionality in the fingers.

Qualifying for Disability Benefits

Individuals may qualify for disability benefits by showing that they meet a disability listing in the Social Security Blue Book or by showing their limitations make it impossible to do all types of jobs.

Disability Listings

There are no specific Blue Book listings 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 1.02 (Major Dysfunction of a Joint). To meet this listing, the joint between your hand and wrist must be affected on both hands, making you unable to effectively perform fine and gross movements. Your abilities must be very seriously impaired, making everyday tasks, such as preparing a simple meal and feeding it to yourself or sorting and handling paper, impossible.

Showing You Can't Work With Hand OA

If you don't meet the joint dysfunction listing, you may be able to qualify for disability benefits if you can show that you are unable to work. Social Security doesn't provide disability benefits if you are only unable to return to your previous job. Social Security will expect you to take a new type of job if you can perform the duties of the job even while suffering from your impairments. However, Social Security does consider your age, education level, and work experience when determining if you should have to switch to a new type of job. The older you are, and the fewer job skills you have, the less likely it is that Social Security will expect you to learn a new job.

If you have fine motor skill impairments (as many with severe hand OA have), you will generally considered to be more impaired then individuals who have only gross motor impairments. Impairments to fine motor skills are considered to affect your ability to work more because there are fewer jobs that an individual with fine motor skill impairments can do. What this means is that if you can't do your current job, there will not likely be many other types of jobs that you can do that are within your limitations. For example, an individual with severe hand OA may not be able to type, file, or write, either at all or without taking significant time to do so, which would substantially limit their ability to complete the tasks of a secretarial job or other desk job in a timely manner. While those with hand OA don't usually suffer from impairments to their gross motor skills (meaning they have no difficulties with the use of their arms or legs), there are not a high number of jobs that can be performed without the use of fine motor skills. To learn more, read our article on showing Social Security you can't do any sit-down work.

Often times, certain conditions make OA worse. For example, cold or humid conditions can make symptoms of OA worse. Individuals with hand OA may not be able to work outdoors or in cold warehouses due to the conditions. This can further limit the types of jobs they can do.

While hand OA can be very limiting for some individuals, it is important to note that if accommodations can be made that lessen your symptoms to the point that you can complete tasks, you will not be determined to be impaired in that area. For example, if you can type when wearing a hand brace, or as long as you receive periodic steroid injections in your thumbs, you will not be considered to be unable to type.

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