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.
Osteoarthritis causes pain and stiffness in the joints for many people as they get older (it is sometimes called degenerative arthritis), but few people qualify for disability for arthritic pain and stiffness alone. But as arthritis symptoms continue to grow worse, the symptoms can severely limit an individual's mobility, requiring knee or hip replacements, or they can seriously affect individuals' ability to use their hands. Arthritis in the neck can hinder the ability to work at a computer, and arthritis in the lumbar spine can make it impossible to work at a job that requires lifting, carrying, crouching, bending, or stooping.
Since osteoarthritis can be found in different joints, causing different limitations, Social Security evaluates the various joint problems in different ways. First, Social Security has several "impairment listings" under which you may be evaluated: two listings for spine problems and one for major joint problems. If you meet the requirements of one of these impairment listings, you will automatically be approved for benefits.
If you don't meet a listing, you can 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.
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:
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.
If you have osteoarthritis in your hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows, wrists, or hands, you might meet the listing for having an abnormality of a major 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, you need medical documentation that:
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.
Obesity. If you are overweight, in determining your physical limitations, the SSA must look at how the combined effect of your extra weight and arthritis limit your functioning. For example, if you are obese and also have arthritis in both knees, you might have more pain and be limited more than someone with arthritis alone. For more information, read our article on getting disability when you are overweight.
If you're applying for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you can file your entire claim online on Social Security's website. If you're not comfortable online, you can call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to start your claim.
Most individuals filing for SSI only cannot file the whole application online, but they can get started on Social Security's website. For more information, see our article on applying for Social Security disability benefits.