Getting Social Security Disability or SSI for Joint Pain Problems

Whether you can get disability for joint pain depends on your diagnosis, imaging results, and functional limitations.

Joint pain is very common; as many as one-third of adults suffer from joint pain at any given time. Typical places for joint pain include the knees, shoulders, neck, hips, elbows, wrists, and ankles. The severity of joint pain ranges from mild soreness to immobilizing pain, and it can last a few weeks (acute) or for months or years (chronic). Because you use your joints (the place where two bones meet) any time you move any part of your body, severe joint pain can be very disabling.

Joint pain has many causes, including injury, inflammation, age, infection, and cancer. Medical diagnoses associated with joint pain include osteoporosis, arthritis, fibromyalgia, bursitis, lupus, and gout.

Can You Get Social Security Disability or SSI for Joint Pain?

While it is possible to qualify for Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) as a result of your chronic joint pain, it's rarely easy.

To qualify for disability benefits, you must first show the Social Security Administration that you are not doing substantial work and that you have a severe “medically determinable” impairment that will last for a continuous period of not less than a year. In order to get disability benefits for joint pain, therefore, you must first seek a diagnosis and treatment from medical professionals and establish that you have an ongoing impairment. In other words, if you apply for disability because of severe pain in a joint, you won't be considered for benefits unless you have x-rays, MRIs, or lab tests showing that you have a physical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce your symptoms.

If you have met these initial requirements, Social Security will then assess whether your impairment qualifies for disability benefits. You can qualify for disability benefits in one of two ways: (1) by showing that your impairment meets or equals the requirements in Social Security’s blue book, the listing of impairments that automatically qualify for benefits; or (2) by showing that your impairment causes physical and/or mental limitations that prevent you from working full-time.

How Joint Pain Can Qualify Under a Blue Book Listing

To qualify under Social Security's listing for joint dysfunction, your joint pain must be associated with a deformity in a joint. In order to meet this listing, medical imaging (such as an MRI) must show either 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.

If the deformity is in your hip, knee, or ankle joint, it must make you unable to walk well enough to carry out the normal activities of daily life. An inability to walk sufficiently means you need a walker, two crutches, or two canes; you can't use standard public transportation; you can't shop or run other errands without someone’s help; or you can't climb a few steps at a reasonable pace with the use of a hand rail.

If the deformity is in your shoulder, elbow, wrist, or hand, it must be in both arms, and must make it so difficult to use your hands effectively that you need someone else's help for daily activities like preparing a meal, feeding yourself, taking care of personal hygiene, or sorting and handling papers or files.

To qualify under this listing, you'll need to make sure that your doctor's notes include exactly how your joint problems limit you (your "functional limitations"), and that your records contain the appropriate medical imaging results.

The blue book also includes others listings that are associated with chronic joint pain. To learn more about meeting the requirements under these listings, see our articles about these impairments:

You may be also able to qualify for disability benefits for one of these impairments by showing that your joint pain is medically equivalent to one of these listings.

Qualifying Based on Residual Functional Capacity

Many diagnoses associated with joint pain are not specifically listed in the blue book. For example, there are no listings for the following specific joint-related problems:

If you have one of the above diagnoses, you'll need to show Social Security that your ability to function is so limited that you can't work full-time. Social Security determines whether your impairment prevents you from working full-time by conducting a "residual functional capacity,” or “RFC,” assessment. The RFC is a measure of your ability to work after taking into account your physical and mental impairments. For comprehensive information about qualifying for disability benefits under an RFC assessment, visit the link above that's most related to your joint pain.
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