How Disabling is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States live with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The intensity and severity of the disease is different for everyone. While some people may only have minor fatigue and aches, others are completely wheelchair-bound.

If you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, there could be financial help available to you if you are unable to work. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program was created to assist those who have become disabled due to an illness such as rheumatoid arthritis.

What Exactly Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. In a healthy person, an immune system is designed to help protect the person from getting sick. However, those with an autoimmune disease have a faulty immune system.

Instead of protecting their bodies, their immune systems attack the healthy cells in their bodies by mistake. This attack causes swelling and pain, also called inflammation.

Rheumatoid arthritis mainly attacks the joints of the body such as the hands, wrists, knees, and feet. In more severe cases, it can also affect other parts of the body such as the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Rheumatoid arthritis is considered a progressive disease, meaning that for most people it tends to get worse over time. This means that some people may not initially qualify for SSDI benefits, but they may be able to qualify once the disease progresses.

While there is no known cure for RA, there are many possible treatments to help slow the progression and severity. These treatments could include diet modifications, medications, and physical therapy.

What Symptoms Do I Need to Qualify?

There are a range of symptoms that can be expected when you have rheumatoid arthritis, and they all might affect your ability to work. Here are some signs that your RA might help you qualify for disability benefits:

  • Persistent swelling or pain might make it difficult to perform many tasks with your arms and hands. For example, typing or carrying an object may become painful and challenging.
  • Pain, stiffness, or difficulty moving could affect the joints of your lower body, making it difficult to walk. You may need to use a cane, walker, or wheelchair to get around. If your job requires any time on your feet, you may experience difficulty moving.
  • Rheumatoid nodules, or small lumps, may form under your skin over bony areas. These nodules may not be painful, but they can make it harder to move. If you cannot perform fine and dexterous movements, such as typing on a computer, you may qualify for SSDI benefits.
  • If your organs become affected by RA, you could begin to experience fever, weight loss, fatigue, and a general feeling of illness, making it difficult to function as you normally have. This is especially true if you have a labor-intensive job.

If your doctor puts you on medications for RA, you may experience some side effects that may affect your quality of life.

  • Medications designed to suppress your over-active immune system may put you at higher risk for other infections. They might also cause high blood pressure, weight gain, high blood sugar, and bone loss. While weight gain alone will not qualify for disability benefits, it can be factored into your claim along with a myriad of other symptoms or complications.
  • NSAIDS used to reduce inflammation and pain may cause severe stomach problems such as heartburn, acid reflux, nausea, and in severe cases, bleeding from the lining of your stomach.
  • Other medications used to slow RA, such as methotrexate, might cause fatigue, headaches, and a generalized fog. In some cases, liver damage may occur.

How Disabling is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Do I Qualify for Social Security Benefits?

To be eligible for Social Security benefits, your medical records will need to show that your symptoms are severe enough to prevent you from working at a level which would support you. Additionally, your illness needs to be disabling for at least 12 months.

As previously mentioned, RA is a progressive illness that is unlikely to get better over time. Unfortunately, that means that your mobility may continue to decline.

What Information Will I Need to Provide?

When applying for Social Security, you may be asked to provide the following documents for your claim

  • Confirmation of your diagnosis of RA from a doctor.
  • Blood tests confirming your diagnosis of RA, which may include a positive ANA or a positive rheumatoid factor test.
  • X-rays, MRIs, or other imaging results that may help to confirm your diagnosis of RA.
  • Notes from your doctor, physical therapist, or other health care provider that describe your symptoms and illness.

You should speak with your doctor if you are missing any of the above medical reports. The more medical evidence you have on your side, the better your odds of receiving SSDI benefits for RA.

Can I Continue Working With Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects about 1.5 million people throughout the U.S. while the severity of the symptoms and intensity of the pain and impact of the disease can vary greatly from one person to another, some people are disabled by the condition. If you have severe disabling symptoms because of RA, you may qualify for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). If you have minor symptoms, such as fatigue and minor aches, you may be able to continue working and earning a living.

If you are unable to work because of RA, you should file an application for disability benefits from the SSA. You must complete the claim forms in detail, answering every question in detail and accurately. You will need to provide supporting evidence and documentation that proves the severity of the condition and how it affects your ability to perform daily tasks as well as work and earn a living. There are specific criteria that must be met for a claimant to qualify for disability benefits per the SSA guidelines.

Meeting The Medical Criteria

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect both your physical and mental capacity to work and perform other routine tasks. The SSA has a medical guide, which is called the Blue Book, to determine if a claimant qualifies for disability benefits. The Blue Book has sections to cover different body systems and each section has listings for disabling conditions that may exist within that system. Each listing has specific medical criteria that must be met for a claimant to qualify for disability benefits.

Disability Determination Services (DDS) will review a claim for RA using Section 14.09, which is titled Inflammatory Arthritis. To qualify with RA, you will need to provide a complete, detailed medical history. You will need to provide medical evidence that show the following:

  • Challenges while getting around, such as the need for a wheelchair, crutches, or a cane, or the use of assistive devices
  • Deformity or pain in a weight-bearing joint, such as a hip or a knee
  • Pain or deformity in any joint in your upper arms that makes performing fine motor skills challenging, such as filing or writing
  • The involvement of any organ, such as pulmonary or cardiac conditions that are related to your diagnosis of RA
  • Severe malaise or fatigue
  • Fevers
  • Involuntary or unexplained weight loss
  • Any problems that involve other body systems

There are several different medical tests that can help confirm your RA diagnosis, and these test results should be included in your medical records:

  • Blood antibody tests
  • Inflammation blood tests
  • Imaging tests, such as x-rays, MRIs, CT-scans

Your medical records should be as detailed as possible and provide as much information as you can. Make certain that your medical records include what medications that you take as well as the dosage and frequency, the side effects of any medications taken, details about any physical or occupational therapy that you take and its frequency, and any changes that RA has caused in your life. Your symptoms, restrictions, and limitations should be clearly indicated in your medical report.

How To Increase Your Chances Of Claim Approval

The key to a successful disability claim is providing hard medical evidence and other supporting documentation. You will need to provide evidence of your limitations of daily living (ADLs), which will detail your abilities of performing household chores, personal hygiene, paying bills, and taking public transportation.

You should also include details regarding your limitation in maintaining social functioning. This could include appropriate communication with others, interacting with others, and managing sustained relationships. Also, provide details about your limitations in completing tasks in a timely manner because of deficiencies in pace, persistence, or concentration.

If you have difficulties that keep you from working and from performing routine tasks because of the severity of your RA, make sure your medical records include documentation that details the severity of your condition and how it affects your functioning and ability to work. If you cannot meet the criteria of the medical listing, you may be able to qualify for disability benefits through a medical vocational allowance with a residual functional capacity (RFC) form.

To improve your chances of having your claim approved, you will need to provide all the supporting documentation that Disability Determination Services needs to determine that you are unable to work and earn a living:

  • Detailed medical records – physician notes, test results, lab reports, treatment records, prescription lists, side effects, symptoms
  • Detailed records detailing your mental capabilities – detail if RA has affected your anxiety, depression, mood, focus, concentration, memory, and social functioning
  • Statements from managers and coworkers describing how your work performance has been affected

A Social Security Disability attorney will help you get your claim on the right track and will gather the pertinent documentation and supporting evidence that is needed for your claim to succeed. An attorney understands how the claims process works and understands the technicality of the wording of the Blue Book. Your chances of having your claim approved increase significantly when an attorney is representing you.

How A Disability Lawyer Can Help You With Your Claim

Disability attorneys understand how the claims process works and what documentation is needed for a claim to be approved. Your lawyer will ensure that your claim forms are completed accurately and in detail and that you have all the evidence that is needed to show the SSA that your RA is disabling and that it keeps you from working and earning a living.

When you retain a disability lawyer, you will not have to pay anything upfront or out of pocket. Disability lawyers take cases on a contingency basis, which means that your lawyer will not be paid until you win your claim and are awarded disability benefits. At that time, your lawyer will receive up to 25 percent of your backpay, but their payment cannot exceed $6,000.

If you are unable to work because of RA, complete the Free Case Evaluation Form on this page to share the details with a lawyer who handles disability cases in your area.

What’s Next?

If you have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and you believe that you may qualify for Social Security benefits, you should contact a disability advocate or lawyer in your area. When your health is suffering, it can be difficult to know where to turn or what to do next.

A qualified attorney can help you navigate the Social Security application process, leaving you time to focus on what’s most important: your health.

Additional Resources

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