How Rheumatoid Arthritis Can Qualify for Disability Benefits
January 30, 2023 · 5 min read
Joint pain is just one of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis that can make it difficult to work. If your arthritis leaves you unable to work, you may qualify for monthly disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Thousands of workers already receive benefits with arthritis, including people who experience it on its own and as a result of other health conditions.
We’ll walk you through how the SSA defines rheumatoid arthritis, when it can qualify for benefits, and how to apply for disability if your rheumatoid arthritis does meet the criteria.
Is rheumatoid arthritis a disability?
Rheumatoid arthritis is a disability if your condition makes it impossible for you to work. According to the SSA, you may be able to qualify for Social Security disability if your pain and inflammation interfere with your job.
How the SSA defines rheumatoid arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own healthy cells. Though inflammatory arthritises can show a variety of symptoms, rheumatoid arthritis is typically most present in the joints and joint linings. The SSA looks for chronic symptoms or more advanced symptoms, like joint deformity and bone erosion, that affect your mobility in your arms or legs.
Common types of rheumatoid arthritis
While there are only two types of rheumatoid arthritis — seronegative and seropositive — the SSA evaluates it alongside other types of inflammatory arthritis. These are:
You can also apply if your arthritis is a symptom or result of another condition, such as Sjögren's syndrome, a crystal deposition disorder like gout, or Lyme disease. Having documentation that you experience symptoms from multiple conditions may even make it easier to qualify for benefits. Learn more about what conditions qualify for disability.
Can you get disability for rheumatoid arthritis?
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may be able to get disability benefits and healthcare as long as your arthritis keeps you from being able to work.
The SSA does have strict criteria, so qualifying can be challenging even if your arthritis is severe. You may be more likely to get approved if you also have another qualifying health condition.
No matter your condition, you’ll need to provide extensive medical documentation to increase your odds of approval. Working with a disability lawyer can also boost your chances — applicants with lawyers are three times more likely to win disability benefits.
Criteria for getting disability with rheumatoid arthritis
The SSA evaluates rheumatoid arthritis using its criteria for inflammatory arthritis — all of which are extensive. To qualify, you’ll have to prove that your arthritis is serious and persistent and makes it difficult for you to work.
Before you apply, consider whether your rheumatoid arthritis meets at least one of the following four criteria:
1. You experience ongoing inflammation or deformities of either A or B below:
A. One or more major joints in your legs, and at least one of the following:
A documented need for a walker, bilateral canes or crutches, or a wheeled or seated mobility device that requires the use of both hands.
An inability to use one of your arms to independently complete work-related activities and a documented need for a handheld assistive device.
B. One or more major joints in each of your arms and medical documentation that you can’t use either arm to independently complete work-related activities.
2. You have inflammation or deformity of one or more major joints in your arms or legs with:
Involvement of at least two organs/body systems with one of the organs/body systems involved at a moderate level of severity, AND
At least two of the following symptoms: severe fatigue, fever, malaise, or involuntary weight loss.
3. You experience other spondyloarthropathies, with one of the following:
Fixation of the dorsolumbar or cervical spine at 45° or more of flexion, OR
Fixation of the dorsolumbar or serval spine between 30° and 45° with involvement of at least two organs/body systems with one of the organs/body systems involved at a moderate level of severity.
4. You have repeated flare-ups of rheumatoid arthritis with at least two of the following symptoms, one of which must be at a marked level:
Limitation of activities of daily living
Limitation in maintaining social functioning
Limitation in completing tasks in a timely manner due to deficiencies in concentration, persistence, or ability to maintain a steady pace in work activities
According to the SSA, a marked limitation results in symptoms that interfere seriously with your ability to function in the designated area.
Questions to ask yourself before applying
If you can answer yes to most or all of the following questions, you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits:
Do you have a rheumatologist? Have you already been seeing them for three months or longer?
Do you experience pain in specific joints?
Has your arthritis worsened over time?
Do you have a limited range of motion?
Is it difficult to move sometimes?
Are the joints in your hands swollen?
Do you struggle to use your arms and/or legs?
If you’re over age 50, keep in mind that you’ll need to prove to the SSA that you can’t do the types of jobs that you’ve done in the past. If you’re under age 50, you have to show that you can’t do any kind of work. Learn more about disability rules before and after age 50.
My rheumatoid arthritis meets the criteria. Now what?
If your rheumatoid arthritis meets all of the SSA’s criteria, your next step is to apply for disability benefits whenever you’re ready. You can still apply if you’re unsure your rheumatoid arthritis is severe enough to qualify, but the application is intense and may only be worth it if you’re likely to qualify. Here’s what we recommend if you’re unsure whether you should apply:
Apply now if:
You have been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis AND
You have inflammation or deformities in your arms or legs OR
You have fixation of your dorsolumbar or cervical spine OR
You have repeated flare-ups that limit your activities of daily living and make it difficult for you to independently complete work-related tasks
Consider waiting and applying later if:
You have rheumatoid arthritis but it doesn’t significantly limit your movement OR
Your rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t interfere with your work, but it might in the future if it continues or progresses
Probably don’t apply if:
Your rheumatoid arthritis is painful but it doesn’t stop you from working OR
You’re working reduced hours but still earning more than about $1,400 per month
You can also take our free 2-minute disability quiz to find out whether or not you’ll qualify before you start the application. If you do qualify, we can match you with an experienced disability lawyer to help you strengthen your case to the SSA. (Our services are completely free and you’ll also only pay your lawyer if you win benefits.)
Which type of benefits should you apply for?
The SSA offers two different benefits programs. Applying for the right one for your situation can impact the benefits you receive each month. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is earmarked for people who’ve worked for years but no longer can. Generally you qualify if you’ve worked for at least five of the last 10 years. People with little to no monthly income and assets typically qualify under Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
You can apply for both programs since they share an application, and some people can receive SSDI and SSI at the same time.
How much is a disability check for rheumatoid arthritis?
The average monthly check for rheumatoid arthritis and similar immune system disorders is $1,477.68. Your actual check size depends not only on your arthritis but also on your work and income history. If you qualify for SSDI, the maximum possible benefit is $3,627, while the maximum benefit for SSI is $914 in 2023.
What if my rheumatoid arthritis doesn’t meet the criteria?
You can apply even if you aren’t sure that your rheumatoid arthritis meets the criteria. In the end, you can qualify if you can show the SSA that you are unable to work because of your arthritis and its symptoms.
Unfortunately, qualifying for disability isn’t easy. Most applicants don’t get approved the first time. The SSA only approves 20% of workers on their first application. But stick with it! If you appeal to the hearing phase — which gives you the chance to make your case in front of a judge — your chances of approval are over 50%.
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