Arthritis, the painful inflammation of joints, is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Nearly 22% of adults, about 50 million people, report doctor-diagnosed arthritis.
As the baby boomer generation ages, cases of arthritis will increase. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects the number of diagnoses will increase to 25% of all American adults by 2030.
Advances in arthritis treatment have made it possible for many to continue their lives without the most debilitating symptoms. Though 31% of arthritis patients, or 8 million people, experience limitations in their work ability due to the disease, this figure is half of what it was 20 years ago. Common tasks like walking or grasping are possible for many thanks to treatment options that doctors now have.
Treatment can be as simple as diet and exercise to relieve weight on joints. Basic drugs like aspirin can also reduce inflammation. The medications that have most helped sufferers, especially those diagnosed within the past 10 years, are disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). This class of drugs can actually slow the progression of arthritis though it cannot reverse past damage. DMARDs are well known for their high price, costing upwards of $20,000 a year. Surgery offers a more invasive option, though one that can bring potentially long-lasting relief. Joint replacement, fusions, and joint-preserving surgeries can help many regain a nearly pain-free daily existence.
For many, however, arthritis treatments can only go so far. The disease progresses to the point that working is no longer an option. Even the most sedentary jobs prove challenging when grasping is difficult. Those suffering rheumatoid arthritis take off an average of two to three weeks from work. One in three eventually quit. Though employers should and do make accommodations for their employees, there are times where working becomes impossible.
Social Security Disability benefits can help some arthritis patients who must leave the workforce. For those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, the Social Security Administration has a number of criteria for determining disability. The applicant must have significant difficulty walking, have difficulty moving their arms, or have any two of the following four symptoms: severe fatigue, fever, malaise, and involuntary weight loss. Additional criteria include doctor diagnoses, medical history, and income restrictions.
Though government agencies and private industry are investing increasing dollars and research on arthritis treatment, it is not clear when a breakthrough will come.