How does the VA rate my arthritis disability?

According to an article in the 2012 Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, U.S. soldiers and veterans have been significantly affected by osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). OA occurs when cartilage—a connective, structural tissue in the body that’s more flexible than bone—breaks down. RA is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the lining of the joints. Both types of arthritis are painful and sometimes debilitating.

In active service personnel under 40, OA is the leading cause of disability and medical discharge, and those on active duty as well as veterans are two times more likely to suffer from OA than civilians. When a soldier is diagnosed with RA during active duty, the Medical Evaluation Board automatically sets up a hearing that usually results in the soldier’s medical discharge from service. Between 2003 and 2009, Army statistics reported that the number of soldiers medically retired from the Army with at least one type of musculoskeletal condition increased almost 10 times.

Because arthritis is so prevalent in soldiers and veterans, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined that this condition is service-connected if diagnosed within a year of discharge. However, if symptoms of arthritis present in later years, you may still be eligible for VA disability.

Why Soldiers Are At a Higher Risk for Arthritis

OA can impact any joint in the body, but it most often affects weight-bearing joints: the ankles, spine, knees, and sometimes fingers. Often called the “wear-and-tear disease,” OA is painful because when the cartilage breaks down, bare bones rub together. Over time, those bones can thicken, become malformed, and form bony spurs—all of which create pain that can be debilitating.

Soldiers are at an increased risk for OA because the wear and tear on their joints can be extreme and excessive. Those in active duty face rigorous training, multiple deployments, and carry heavy equipment and body armor that can create intense pressure on joints and contribute to arthritis. In the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, service personnel carried between 80 and 120 pounds of gear. While troops now have lighter tactical gear that is often less than 20 pounds, they may still need to wear heavier armor under certain circumstances.

Additionally, combat wounds such as joint injuries from shrapnel and broken bones from roadside bombs can eventually lead to OA. During the Iraq war, a study of service personnel who were injured on the battlefield found that OA was the main reason these soldiers were discharged.

How the VA Rates Arthritis

If you have service-connected arthritis, a VA rating specialist will look at the following factors when determining your rating:

  • Functional loss. This rating focuses on the limitations of the joint’s range of motion. For example, the VA rating specialist will evaluate an arthritic knee by its ability to perform normal, working movements.
  • Instability. The VA rating specialist will categorize instability of the joint in three ways: slight (10%), moderate (20%), or severe (30%). It’s important that your doctor use these three terms to explain your limitations due to arthritis. Additionally, he should explain why your condition falls into that particular category.
  • Pain. Most veterans with arthritis experience pain. While the VA rating system doesn’t usually recognize pain as a disability, it may be factored in for arthritis—especially if it affects the knee. Even if your range of motion is fine, and there appears to be no functional loss, the VA may still grant a rating in this category if you can provide evidence that the range of motion is affected by pain when the joint is used in a normal, repetitive way. The VA may recognize that the pain is impacting your ability to use that joint.

If you suffer from OA or RA, and your symptoms make it difficult or impossible to work or sustain gainful employment, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits. Or if you’ve applied and were denied benefits, call Cuddigan Law at (402) 933-5405  Be sure to ask for a copy of our free book, The Essential Guide to VA Disability Claims.

Sean D. Cuddigan
SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska