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Veterans Law

VA Disability Ratings for Arthritis of the Back

Alyse Phillips

June 11, 2020

Updated: June 20, 2024

old man being examined by practitioner due to arthritis of the back

What is Arthritis of the Back?

Generally speaking, there are two main types of arthritis of the back: degenerative arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.  Degenerative arthritis occurs when cartilage between joints erodes over time resulting in joint stiffness, limited mobility, and pain.  This type of arthritis usually takes place in weight-bearing joints (e.g., back, hips, knees).

Arthritis of the spine is a breakdown of the cartilage of the joints and discs in the neck and back.  Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the membranes lining your joints, resulting in inflammation, limited motion, stiffness, and pain.  For the purpose of this blog, we will be focusing degenerative arthritis.  As mentioned above, degenerative arthritis commonly occurs in the back.

Usually, arthritis of the back happens as people get older; however, it may also result from injury or trauma to a joint, or a genetic defect involving cartilage.  The best way to confirm a diagnosis of arthritis of the back is by X-ray.  The doctor will also take a medical history and perform a physical exam to see if the person has pain, tenderness, loss of motion involving the neck or lower back, or if symptoms are suggestive, signs of nerve involvement such as weakness, reflex changes, or loss of sensation.

In most cases, treatment of arthritis of the back is geared toward relieving the symptoms of pain and increasing a person’s ability to function.  Examples of treatment include the following:

  • Massage
  • Acupuncture
  • Heat or cold compresses (i.e., placing ice or heated compresses onto the affected area)
  • Nutritional supplements
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (e.g., aspirin, Aleve, Motrin, Advil)
  • Surgery (in severe cases)

Unfortunately, many veterans suffer from arthritis of the back.  If their arthritis of the back is related to their time in military service, they may be eligible to receive VA disability benefits.

Prevalence of Arthritis of the Back Among Veterans

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons states that degenerative arthritis is the primary reason for disability discharge among service members.  Over 395,000 veterans are currently receiving disability benefits for degenerative arthritis of the back according to VA’s 2015 Annual Benefits Report.  Injury and joint overuse are common causes of arthritis in the back among service members.

Establishing Service Connection for Arthritis of the Back

Direct Service Connection

To establish direct service connection for arthritis of the back, veterans must prove that the condition is linked to an event that occurred during their time in service.  In-service injuries, or overuse of the joints, make it very possible that a veteran may develop arthritis in their back later in life as this condition progresses over time as the cartilage continues to wear down.  A doctor can look at a veteran’s in-service injuries or overuse and determine if there is a causal relationship to their arthritis.  If VA determines there is a link between the two, service connection may be granted.

Presumptive Service Connection

Importantly, degenerative arthritis of the back may be eligible for presumptive service connection as a chronic disease under 38 CFR § 3.309.  VA holds that if symptoms appear within one year of discharge from military service to a degree of 10 percent disabling, then a presumption of service connection will apply.  This is very important as it allows veterans to establish service connection even if they do not otherwise have medical evidence that links their currently diagnosed arthritis to some particular incident or injury in service.  Here, the presumption under § 3.309 serves as a shortcut to service connection.

VA Disability Ratings for Arthritis in Back

Arthritis of the back is rated under 38 CFR § 4.71a, Diagnostic Code 5003.  The rating criteria is primarily based on the limitation of range of motion.  However, if limitation of motion of the back renders a non-compensable (i.e., 0 percent) rating, a 10 percent rating will be assigned for each major joint or group of minor joints affected by limitation of motion.  These will be combined, not added, to determine the rating for arthritis of the back.  Arthritis of the back will be rated at 10 or 20 percent based upon the number of joints/joint groups affected and the level of incapacitation.

VA requires that limitations of motion be confirmed by observations such as swelling, muscle spasms, or evidence of painful motion. If no limited range of motion exists in joints, veterans will be rated for degenerative arthritis if X-ray evidence exists to support the diagnosis.

  • To be rated at 10 percent for arthritis of the spine, veterans must have X-ray evidence revealing two or more major joints or two or more groups of minor joints are afflicted by degenerative arthritis of the back.
  • To receive a 20 percent rating for arthritis of the back, X-ray evidence must show that two or more major joints or two or more groups of minor joints have degenerative arthritis of the back and produce occasional incapacitating episodes.
VA Disability for Back Pain

Degenerative Disc Disease and Arthritis in the Back

Degenerative disc disease, also referred to as osteoarthritis of the spine, most commonly affects lower back or neck. Specifically, the condition occurs when the discs between vertebrae lose cushioning, fragment and herniate.

Degenerative disc disease is rated under 38 CFR § 4.71a, Schedule of Ratings – Musculoskeletal System, Diagnostic Code 5242.  Veterans may also file a claim for secondary service connection for degenerative disc disease if they believe a primary condition that was caused by service contributed to their degenerative disc disease.

Was Your VA Claim for Arthritis of the Back Denied?

The VA disability attorneys at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick LTD have successfully appealed thousands of VA disability denials. If your VA disability claim has been denied, we may be able to help. Contact our office at 800-544-9144 for a free consultation with our office.

About the Author

Bio photo of Alyse Phillips

Alyse is a Supervising Attorney at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick. Since joining the firm in August of 2016, she has specialized in representing disabled veterans and their dependents before the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

See more about Alyse