Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a common condition that affects many people in the U.S., but it’s especially prevalent in military personnel. Due to physically demanding work situations and environments, those who serve in the military put their bodies under severe stress and strain. Wearing body armor that can weigh over 50 pounds, riding in motor vehicles that maneuver over rough roads, and carrying heavy equipment cause soldiers to develop arthritis at a higher rate than civilians and at a younger age.

Additionally, the work performed by soldiers is highly strenuous, and they need to train especially hard to successfully finish necessary fitness exams. The requirements of the job can cause injuries that may become arthritic years later.

Osteoarthritis (OA) and RA are the two most common forms of arthritis. OA sufferers usually experience body pain and stiffness, as well as swollen shoulders, knees, and hands. However, RA is an autoimmune disease, and the immune systems of those with RA attack the tissues in their body. They often experience inflammation of the tissue lining and joints. This chronic inflammatory disorder can damage many of the body’s organs, including the lungs, blood vessels, heart, skin, and eyes.

Recent VA statistics report that over 250,000 veterans receive compensation for arthritis.

Because soldiers and veterans experience RA at such a high rate, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined that this condition is service-connected if diagnosed within a year of discharge. The VA also recognizes that RA can create serious problems that interfere with a person’s ability to work and sustain gainful employment. Thus, it’s possible to receive VA Disability benefits if your RA symptoms meet certain criteria; however, it’s helpful to have an attorney to help appeal your claim

The Omaha VA Performs Drug Therapy Study for RA

Most often, your doctor will use drugs to treat the inflammation of RA. The first drug options are “disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs” (DMARDs). Methotrexate is one of these drugs and is usually he first choice in treating RA because it works well, is safe, is fairly inexpensive, and has less side effects. However, if one of the DMARDs doesn’t put your RA into remission, the next step is to try stronger drugs called biologics. These drugs stop inflammation and help control your immune system, prevent damage to your joints and organs, and basically help you feel better. However, by slowing down an immune system that’s out of control, biologics make it harder for the body to fight infections such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Additionally, biologics are much more expensive than DMARDs.

In 2013, the VA carried out a 48-week study that compared the effectiveness of these RA drug therapies. Researchers looked at the overall benefits of less-expensive DMARDs with the more expensive biologics. Dr. James O’Dell, the primary author of the study and chief of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System’s Omaha Medical Center and the University of Nebraska Medical Center divisions of rheumatology and immunology, said that one of the main reasons for studying the effectiveness of these drugs is the significant increase in the cost of treating RA. It has become more expensive per patient than treating diabetes because there has been an increase in the use of biologics.

The results of the study challenged the generally held belief that biologics had significantly increased potency over DMARDs. This study showed that both drug strategies—DMARDs and biologics—provided significant and comparable improvements in RA patients. Additionally, no significant differences were found in secondary outcomes such as pain, radiographic progression, and quality of life.

Dr. O’Dell said that 20 years ago, there weren’t as many treatment options for those who suffered from RA. Now, he has many options to offer his patients, and he says “the prognosis for people who are newly diagnosed with RA is excellent if therapy is started early.”

This study is just one of over 150 other studies conducted at the Omaha VA Medical Center. This VA center is unique because it focuses on medical conditions that impact and disable veterans, including diabetes, pulmonary disease, and substance abuse.  

We Can Help

If you suffer from RA and are unable to work, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits. Or if you’ve applied and were denied benefits, call Cuddigan Law at (402) 933-5405. We’ll discuss your eligibility for compensation. Be sure to ask for a copy of our free book, The Essential Guide to VA Disability Claims. If you found this blog helpful, share it with your friends and family on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.


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