Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues. The condition typically causes swelling, stiffness, and pain in the joints. However, it may also affect other areas of the body, including the cardiovascular system, kidneys, skin, and eyes.

For some, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms can significantly affect their ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. In these situations, the person may qualify for disability benefits.

This article discusses when RA is a disability, how to know if a person living with RA qualifies for benefits, and how to claim them. We also provide tips on how to manage the symptoms of RA.

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RA is a progressive condition, meaning that it will worsen over time. The pace at which the disease progresses will depend on multiple factors, including:

  • the person’s occupation
  • the person’s weight and activity levels
  • whether the person is taking medication to manage their arthritis

In a 2008 study of RA and work disability in the United States, 35% of people stopped working within 10 years of their initial RA diagnosis.

According to the Global Healthy Living Foundation, to qualify for disability benefits, a person would need to show that they are unable to work for a year or that working may result in death.

At what point does the government consider RA a disability?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) considers RA a disability if a person meets the following eligibility criteria:

  • the person’s condition is so severe that they will need to be out of work for 12 months or more
  • the person has gained enough work credits to qualify for disability benefits

The SSA calculates work credits based on the total amount a person earns each year. According to the SSA, in 2021, a person can receive one credit for every $1,470 of earned income for a maximum of four credits per year.

Though the amount needed per credit often increases each year, a person can accumulate credits at different points in their life. They will not disappear if a person stops working for several years.

Disability benefits, more commonly known as Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), are available for qualified individuals. To qualify, a person must have worked and paid into social security for a number of years.

The SSA outlines the number of years a person needs to have worked to qualify for SSDI. The number of years varies based on the age of the person. According to the SSA, people 31–42 years old need to have earned 20 credits in the 5 years before becoming disabled.

However, a person aged 62 years or older needs to have earned 40 credits in the 10 years before becoming disabled.

According to the SSA’s monthly statistical snapshot, the average monthly benefit in June 2021 for people under 65 years old with a disability was $1,310.

The SSA classifies RA under “inflammatory arthritis.”

According to the SSA, to qualify for SSDI, a person living with RA needs to meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • persistent inflammation or deformity of one or more of the major peripheral joints in the legs or feet that causes one of the following:
    • an inability to walk
    • an inability to use botharms for daily functions for work or independent living activities
  • inflammation or deformity in one or more major joints of an arm or leg with involvement of at least two organs or body systems and at least two symptoms, such as:
  • The presence of severe ankylosing spondylitis or another spondyloarthropathy.
  • Continual arthritis flares, along with symptoms, such as fever or weight loss, and the inability to fully function in the following:
    • daily living activities
    • social functioning
    • time-efficient completion of tasks at work

Additional considerations

In determining benefits, the SSA will also look at a person’s ability to sustain work based on their Social Security’s Medical-Vocational Guidelines.

The guidelines use the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to determine how much work a person living with RA can reasonably carry out. The RFC classification outlines four broad categories based on the physical demands of a person’s work. They include:

  • sedentary
  • light
  • medium
  • heavy

If a person cannot complete their expected work based on their disability and experience level, they may qualify for full benefits. However, a person who can complete light or sedentary work may not be eligible if they can work in a sedentary position.

The RFC also takes into account the following factors to determine if a person should receive SSDI:

  • the person’s age
  • the person’s educational level or skill level
  • the person’s previous work experience
  • the doctor’s recommendations

People may apply for SSDI benefits online here or by calling 800-772-1213.

The SSA provides an “Adult Disability Checklist” to help people determine what they need before applying for disability benefits. They provide one checklist for completing an application online and another for completing an application over the phone.

The checklist details the documents and information a person needs to apply for benefits. Some of the information a person will need includes:

  • birth information, such as birth date and place
  • marriage and divorce information
  • names of children and dependents
  • records of U.S. military service
  • employer details
  • work history
  • training and education related to work
  • names and information about medical professionals working with the person
  • list of medical conditions

There is no cure for RA, but there are ways to manage its symptoms and slow its progression. The goal of most treatment plans is to:

  • provide symptom relief
  • reduce swelling or inflammation
  • prevent organ or joint damage
  • prevent or reduce long-term damage
  • maintain remission of disease activity
  • minimize medication side effects

Some standard treatment options include:

A person should talk to their doctor if they notice worsening or continued symptoms. Working closely with a doctor is important for managing symptoms and reducing the severity of RA.

RA is a chronic disease that primarily affects the joints but can also affect other parts of the body. The condition can progress to the point that a person finds it difficult or impossible to maintain their occupation.

The SSA classifies RA as a type of inflammatory arthritis. A person with RA may qualify for benefits if they become unable to work. A person must document that they meet the Social Security criteria for disability before receiving any benefits.

Although there is no cure for RA, a person can manage the condition with medications, therapies, and appropriate lifestyle changes.