Rheumatoid Arthritis in Veterans
Veterans often have aches and pains from normal life in the service. Heavy backpacks, rough parachute landings, repetitive use of your joints holding your gun, a steering wheel, or other equipment can all contribute to typical wear on your body. Since Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disorder, it could be caused by trauma or chemicals, not just physical wear and tear. Osteoarthritis will show up in your knee or elbow if you wear them out, but RA is different.
Rheumatoid arthritis can show up after you’ve been discharged for months. PTSD and rheumatoid arthritis sometimes go together. That goes to show how hard it is to pinpoint a cause. It tends to begin symmetrically. Your right and left elbows or ankles might start to ache and be swollen. Since swollen achy ankles can be caused by a number of things, you might not look for the RA diagnosis right away. If you are within your first year of being out of the service, though, do it! Rheumatoid arthritis can be service-connected as a presumptive condition during your first year of civilian life.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis in Veterans
- How Rheumatoid Arthritis Works
- Rheumatoid Arthritis Doesn’t Have to Be a Death Sentence
- Early Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Progression of RA in Aging Veterans
- VA Disability Rating for Arthritis in Your Hands or Trigger Finger
- The VA Ratings Schedule for Rheumatoid Arthritis
- How to Increase your Rating from 60% to 100%
- Rheumatoid Arthritis in Veterans FAQs
How Rheumatoid Arthritis Works
The cause of Rheumatoid Arthritis is unknown. If your parents had it, your risk of having it increases 4 times over. Smoking can more than double your risk of getting RA. Some chemicals and traumatic events also have been known to trigger the body to begin attacking the synovial fluid. Since there are so many causes that are still misunderstood, drawing a service connection is more about making the case that your symptoms started because of your military service. They may not have affected you during your active duty, but your active duty is what brought it about.
Most of your joints are filled with a fluid called synovial fluid. This fluid acts like oil between the hinges of your joints. Most of the time your joints move around and slide in the synovial fluid with no problem. If a joint injury occurs, however, your body can pump as much as three times the normal amount of fluid into your joint. This will cause pain and swelling and can even make the joint bulge out.
If the synovial joint also has cartilage that tears, there can be blood in the synovial fluid. This is like pouring antifreeze into your valve cover on accident! Instead of lubricating your joints, the blood can displace the synovial fluid for a little bit and let joints rub together the wrong way.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Doesn’t Have to Be a Death Sentence
There are so many variables involved with the diagnosis and the symptoms of RA, you don’t have to give up when you receive a diagnosis. Lifestyle choices, exercise, diet, and other conditions all play a factor in your life expectancy, not just rheumatoid arthritis. A person that is diagnosed with RA today has a much better chance of living a normal life than their grandparents did.
Technically, no one dies of RA. The symptoms develop and aggravate other body systems which then slowly lead to death. Extreme cases of RA, with the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) family medical history and age can decrease a person’s lifespan by 15 years. At the same time, something like quitting smoking can increase your average lifespan by 10 years. When dealing with averages, it’s important to not get discouraged. There are outliers that break the curve in all of these situations. There are many people living happy lives into their 90s with rheumatoid arthritis.
Ten percent of people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis experience full spontaneous remission within 6 months of the onset of their symptoms. This shouldn’t stop you from pursuing your claim, though. Symptoms come and go at rare and random intervals at the onset of RA then may increase in severity and frequency as you get older. Since the average VA disability claim can take 5 years, work with our lawyers to make sure you get everything listed on your application that you can.
Early Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
At some point, you might mow the grass or carry in some groceries and be sore. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you notice the soreness and stiffness lasting hours or days longer than usual, pay attention to that pain. Your body might be telling you something. Rheumatoid arthritis progression can be slow and only show itself after months of symptoms. It can show up in making you very tired, having tingling in your hands and feet, or even as a stiff joint, of course. If you are active and injure yourself and it takes an abnormally long time for your injury to heal, that can be a sign of RA also.
Occasional incapacitating arthritis won’t be enough to get you a high rating, but it will help you get your initial diagnosis. The clear diagnosis from a doctor is the most important part of getting VA benefits for autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. A blood test might show high levels of the rheumatoid factor while your symptoms are still unclear. PTSD, fibromyalgia, depression, and diabetes all carry symptoms similar to rheumatoid arthritis, so make sure you are tested for all of those too if you are showing these symptoms. If a VA doctor misdiagnoses you for one of those disabilities, talk to one of our lawyers right away to get the back-pay you deserve for the wrong VA rating.
Progression of RA in Aging Veterans
As rheumatoid arthritis progresses, the symptoms show up in ways that are easier to measure. You might have swollen finger joints or your elbows may be slightly deformed from swelling. Your knees might not be able to bend very far because of pain. The thing that is most important when looking at a VA disability rating for arthritis in knees, however, is to make sure you are getting the best rating. For instance, knee flexion is the measure of how far you can bend your knee. That carries a 10%-30% rating depending on how much it bends. If you can’t straighten it, you might get up to a 50% disability rating. The VA won’t let you double dip on any disability, so if you get a 10% rating for poor flexion in your knee, they won’t consider giving you 30% for arthritis pain in the same knee.
Instead of getting a VA rating for knee pain, and another rating for ankle pain, it might get more money in your pocket or even a 100% TDIU rating if you get rated for RA instead of individual joint problems. A musculoskeletal disease VA rating has a lot more promise if you have the right combination of symptoms. VA math can be a mess when you are adding a 10% rating for your left elbow and a 30% rating for your right hand. The 100% rating for all over pain in movement from rheumatoid arthritis might make more sense to your doctor too.
VA Disability Rating for Arthritis in Your Hands or Trigger Finger
Remember that rheumatoid arthritis starts in smaller joints first. Your knuckles on both hands might begin by aching and swelling. Lack of movement in your fingers and numbness can be a symptom of diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, or other ailments. Make sure you are checked out by a doctor that knows to test for all of those diseases.
The knuckles where your fingers meet your hands and those next knuckles are the ones most affected by swelling and pain from rheumatoid nodules. Trigger finger is a different condition that affects hands, but is not considered arthritis. It’s going to be rated based on pain and range of motion due to joint damage, but won’t escalate into the ratings of degenerative arthritis. You are also more likely to get trigger finger while you are still in the service, rather than years later.
The VA Ratings Schedule for Rheumatoid Arthritis
- One or two painful flare-ups a year: 20% Rating
- Clear impairments to daily living and health diagnosed by a doctor or 3 or more incapacitating episodes a year: 40% Rating
- Worse than 40% but not quite 100% incapacitated, with weight loss and anemia due to the long term affects and incapacitated 4 times a year or more: 60% Rating
- Multiple systems of your body like lungs, veins, and eyes in addition to your joints affected, totally incapacitating RA: 100% Rating
Some of these things require X-Ray proof, while other times the pain and swelling are symptoms enough to get the diagnosis. Make sure you are clear to the VA if your affected joints keep you from being able to do your normal job. Sometimes you can qualify for TDIU even if you could do a sedentary job that isn’t the job that you’ve had all of your life. Since rheumatic diseases are a type of disease that progresses, you want to get started on your claim as soon as symptoms affect you.
• RA affects 1.3 million AmericansRheumatoid Arthritis Facts from https://www.rheumatoidarthritis.org/ra/facts-and-statistics/
• The specific cause is unknown
• It is more common than any other autoimmune disorder, including psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and lupus.
• It happens when a person’s antibodies attack their synovial joint fluid, which is the natural lubrication of your joints
How to Increase your Rating from 60% to 100%
Since rheumatoid arthritis is a degenerative condition, you can have it reviewed every few years and apply for a change. Sometimes people have improved movement and fewer flare-ups which results in losing some of their VA benefits. Most of the time, though, you can apply for an increase in a rating which results in more money per month. It doesn’t cost you anything to have us look over your current rating and see if you are ready to apply for an increase.
In more than one case, a veteran was entitled to an increase in benefits years before they applied for that increase, so they were entitled to back-pay for the time in between. We can also find mistakes like if you were rated for rheumatoid arthritis and limitation of motion but not rated for the complete autoimmune disorder, we need to write some letters! If you were misdiagnosed as having RA but it turns out that you have fibromyalgia and PTSD, we need to get you compensated for the correct rating instead of 20% for arthritis.
There are a lot of ways to look at arthritis from the perspective of getting the most care for a disabled veteran. Even once a veteran passes away, a surviving spouse can file a DIC claim if their husband or wife died from complications related to rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Rheumatoid Arthritis in Veterans FAQs
Yes, there are several autoimmune disorders that can be service-connected. Depending on where you served and the experiences you had, rheumatoid arthritis, PTSD, thyroid issues, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and inflammatory bowel disease could all be linked. Each one is rated differently based on the effect it has on your daily life.
The scale the VA uses to rate rheumatoid arthritis has four tiers at 20%, 40%, 60%, and 100%. The lower levels basically depend on how many flare-ups you have in a year, while the higher levels assume constant pain affecting multiple systems of your body.
If you have been confirmed to have rheumatoid arthritis, they probably won’t let you join up. Most branch’s activities will aggravate osteoarthritis as well. If your parents have rheumatoid arthritis, you have an increased risk, but that alone won’t keep you out. If you aren’t currently showing symptoms, you could be in fine shape to enlist.
When the VA rates hand disabilities, they do take into account if you are right handed or left handed. A disability on your dominant hand will result in a higher rating than on your non-dominant hand. Ratings on both hands will trigger the bilateral factor bonus of about 10% additional compensation.