Social Security Disability Benefits for Arthritis

Osteoarthritis can be disabling whether it's in your hands, wrists, knees, hips, or back.

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Arthritis is the swelling and tenderness of one or more joints caused by the deterioration of cartilage. Fractures or breaks in the bone, obesity, age, autoimmune disorders, bacterial or viral infections, and normal wear and tear can all cause arthritis.

Arthritis can cause significant pain, redness, and swelling of the joints and often limits one's ability to perform everyday activities.

Can I Get Disability for My Arthritis?

To decide whether you should be approved for disability based on your arthritis, the Social Security Administration (SSA) goes through several steps.

First, if you're making any sort of income, the SSA will determine whether you're working above the "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) limit. For 2022, this amount is $1,350 or more a month. This means that if you earn $1,350 or more per month (or you're self-employed and doing work valued at over $1,350 per month), the SSA will find that you're working too much to be considered disabled, and your claim will be denied.

Next, if the SSA determines you aren't working above the SGA level, the agency will determine whether your arthritis is a "severe" impairment. Under the SSA's standards, a "severe" impairment is one that causes a moderate effect on your ability to do work-related activities and has lasted, or is expected to last, for at least 12 months. This second step is a very low standard, and is generally easy to overcome in cases of arthritis.

At the following step, the SSA will decide whether your arthritis meets (or "equals") one of the conditions in the SSA's Listing of Impairments. If your arthritis meets the criteria for a condition in the Listing of Impairments, your claim for disability will be approved. If it doesn't, you will move on to the final two steps, where you may still be able to get disability benefits another way (see below).

Does My Arthritis Meet a Listing?

The SSA lays out the criteria needed for arthritis to be a qualifying medical condition under four separate listings in the SSA's impairment listings: Listing 1.15, Listing 1.16, Listing 1.17, and Listing 1.18. The listing the SSA will use depends on where your arthritis is: your back, hips, knees, shoulders, or hands.

This article focuses on the osteoarthritis listings; if you have inflammatory arthritis, see our articles on the listings for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis.

Listing 1.15, Spinal Disorders With Compromise of a Nerve Root

To qualify under Listing 1.15 for back problems resulting in a spinal "nerve root" being compromised, you must have evidence of all of the following:

  • indications that a nerve root is compressed (pain, pins and needles, or muscle fatigue in the buttocks or legs)
  • neurological signs such as muscle weakness, signs of nerve root irritation, and decreased sensation or decreased deep tendon reflexes
  • X-rays or MRI results consistent with compromise of a nerve root, and
  • an inability to use your hands for work because:
    • you need an assistive device for walking that requires both hands (walker, bilateral canes or crutches, or wheelchair)
    • you need a device that requires use of one hand, but you're unable to use the other hand for work-related tasks, or
    • you aren't able to use either hand for work-related tasks.

Listing 1.16, Lumbar Stenosis Resulting in Compromise of the Cauda Equina

To qualify for disability because of lumbar spinal stenosis under Listing 1.16, you must demonstrate that you suffer from all of the following:

  • non-radiating pain, non-radiating sensory loss, or pain or cramping in one or both legs
  • neurological signs of muscle weakness and either sensory changes or decreased deep tendon reflexes in one of both legs
  • X-rays or MRIs (or notes from a post-surgical report) showing that the cauda equina (the bundle of nerve roots at the lower end of the spinal cord) is compressed, and
  • an inability to use your hands for work because:
    • you need an assistive device for walking that requires both hands (walker, bilateral canes or crutches, or wheelchair)
    • you need a device that requires use of one hand, but you're unable to use the other hand for work-related tasks, or
    • you aren't able to use either hand for work-related tasks.

The last requirement rules out all those who are living with great pain but who are able to walk and get places without assistance.

Listing 1.17, Reconstructive Surgery of a Major Weight-Bearing Joint

Listing 1.17 is for those who've had reconstructive surgery of a major weight-bearing joint, such as a hip, knee, or ankle, because of arthritis. Reconstructive surgery includes a hip replacement, a knee replacement, or surgical arthrodesis (fusion of the bones that form a joint).

You can qualify for benefits under this listing if you can no longer walk on your own without a walker, bilateral canes or crutches, or another two-handed device.

Listing 1.18, Abnormality of a Major Joint

If your arthritis has caused major dysfunction of any of your joints, you may be eligible for disability under Listing 1.18. To qualify under Listing 1.18, you must prove that your arthritis has caused some type of abnormality or deformity (such as osteoarthritis, fusion, joint space narrowing, or ankylosis) in any joint in your upper extremities (shoulder, elbow, wrist/hand) or lower extremities (hip, knee, ankle/foot). The abnormality must cause all of the following:

  • chronic joint pain or stiffness
  • abnormal motion, instability, or immobility of the affected joint, and
  • an inability to use your hands for work because:
    • your arthritis makes you unable to use either hand for work-related tasks
    • you need a device that requires use of one hand, but you're unable to use the other hand for work-related tasks, or
    • you need an assistive device for walking that requires both hands (walker, bilateral canes or crutches, or wheelchair).

To qualify under this listing, you must show evidence of your joint abnormality or deformity through either an x-ray or MRI or physical exam notes.

What If My Arthritis Doesn't Meet Any of the Listings?

You can still be approved for disability even if your arthritis doesn't meet an official SSA impairment listing, though it will be more difficult. If the SSA decides that your arthritis doesn't meet a listing, the agency must decide whether you're able to do your past work, or any other work, despite the symptoms of your arthritis.

The SSA will consider your age, education, past work experience, and impact of your arthritis symptoms in deciding whether you can be expected to work. For this reason, it's easier for older and less educated applicants to win a claim for disability.

To inform the SSA about how your arthritis impacts your life and your ability to work, you should ask your doctor to fill out a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form. An RFC will discuss how your ability to perform work-related activities like sitting, standing, walking, pushing, pulling, feeling, and lifting is limited as a result of your arthritis. For example, if your arthritis has caused malformation, swelling, and pain in your fingers and wrists, your RFC should explain that you are unable to type, use a pen, or perform other work that requires the use of your hands and fingers. This limitation alone would prevent you from doing most work.

If you have a prescription for a cane or walker, your RFC should state that you have difficulty with balance, carrying, lifting, and pulling. Also, because many arthritis sufferers experience significant back pain, your RFC should state whether you are unable to sit for more than four hours and whether you need to take frequent unscheduled breaks, change your positions, or lie down at times throughout the day. The inability to sit for more than four hours would likely result in a disability approval.

If the SSA determines that, in light of these restrictions from your arthritis, there is no work you can perform, your claim will be approved.

It's important that your RFC be supported by objective medical evidence like x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and blood work. In addition to filling out an RFC form, make sure your doctor provides the SSA with as much medical documentation as possible.

Applying for Social Security Disability Benefits due to Arthritis

You can apply for Social Security disability in person at your local SSA office, by calling Social Security at 800-772-1213, or online at www.ssa.gov. To complete the disability application, you'll need detailed information, including the contact information and dates of treatment for all of your medical providers, the dates of any medical tests, and the names, addresses, and dates of employment for all of your employers in the last 15 years.

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

Updated January 28, 2022

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