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VA Disability for Lupus: Navigating Your Claim

Some veterans have an increased risk of developing lupus. When grappling with the complexities of lupus, a pressing question for many is whether it qualifies for Veterans Affairs (VA) disability benefits. Let’s explore the intricacies to understand if and how lupus can make you eligible for VA disability.

Donald Thomas, MD author of The Lupus Encyclopedia for Gastrointestinal symptoms in lupus blog post

This blog on “VA Disability for Lupus” was edited and contributed to by Donald Thomas, MD; author of “The Lupus Encyclopedia.” Parts of this blog post come from “The Lupus Encyclopedia: A Comprehensive Guide for Patients and Health Care Providers, edition 2

Understanding Lupus and its Impact

Lupus, a chronic autoimmune condition, can profoundly affect one’s health. Its diverse symptoms, ranging from joint pain to organ inflammation, can also often raise questions about eligibility for disability benefits.

The VA Disability Criteria

The VA determines disability eligibility based on the impact of a condition on a veteran’s ability to work and lead a fulfilling life. Lupus, with its potential to cause severe fatigue, pain, and organ damage, can significantly hinder daily activities.

Lupus among Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center reported an increased number of veterans with autoimmune disorders in 2014. They evaluated the records of 666,269 veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. Around one out of every three veterans suffered from PTSD. These veterans with PTSD were twice as likely to develop an autoimmune disorder (including lupus) compared to veterans who did not have a psychiatric disorder. Veterans with military-associated sexual trauma were also more likely to develop an autoimmune disease.

There is mounting evidence that also stress increases the chances of developing systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The risk is highest with severe stressors like natural disasters, sexual and physical abuse, and stress that leads to PTSD. Stress also increases the risk of SLE flares. The amount of research showing a link between stress and SLE is so strong that lupus experts recommend that SLE patients learn to practice stress reduction techniques, such as practicing daily mindfulness. People cannot eliminate stress from their lives, but they can improve how their body reacts to it. Exaggerated and unhealthy reactions to stress have negative effects on the immune system.

Other Triggers of Lupus in Veterans

While 25% of the risk of developing SLE lies with is genetic, around 75% of the risk is thought to be related to environmental triggers. One well-known trigger is stress, as discussed above. However, there are others that veterans may have faced during their careers in the military:

Agent Orange and Lupus

One of the most well-known and publicized herbicides is “Agent Orange” previously used in the Vietnam War from approximately 1962 to 1971. It was used to kill the leaves of trees and other plants to allow the US military to see the enemy better. Unfortunately, many civilians and the U.S. military were exposed to Agent Orange.

The “Children of Vietnam Veterans Health Alliance” lists autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, in the children of veterans as a possible consequence of exposure.

However, autoimmune disorders (like SLE) have not occurred in higher than expected numbers thus far from agent orange exposure and are not listed as a known health consequence.

Disorders listed as “presumptive diseases associated with exposure to Agent Orange” include

  • AL amyloidosis
  • chronic B-cell leukemias
  • bladder cancer
  • Hodgkin’s disease
  • prostate cancer
  • lung cancer
  • chloracne
  • diabetes mellitus type 2
  • high blood pressure
  • hypothyroidism
  • ischemic heart disease
  • monoclonal gammopathy of uncertain significance
  • multiple myeloma
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • early-onset peripheral neuropathy
  • porphyria cutanea tarda
  • prostate cancer
  • cancers of the respiratory system
  • and soft tissue sarcomas

Other Associated Disorders

Veterans should note that several of these disorders are common and should be considered as possible associated disorders:

  • high blood pressure
  • type 2 diabetes
  • hypothyroidism
  • ischemic heart disease
  • peripheral neuropathy

The only autoimmune disease on this list is hypothyroidism (usually as a result of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or Graves disease).

Although not autoimmune diseases, the following agent orange-associated disorders occur more commonly in people with autoimmune diseases, including with SLE:

  • AL amyloidosis
  • chronic B-cell leukemias
  • Hodgkin’s disease
  • hypothyroidism
  • monoclonal gammopathy of uncertain significance
  • multiple myeloma
  • non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • early-onset peripheral neuropathy

However, lupus is an uncommon disease, and it is hard to prove causality by studies like those for Agent Orange. For example, large studies fail to prove any connection between vaccines and lupus. However, most lupus experts have patients with SLE who developed it after receiving a vaccine. Since herbicides are implicated as one possible trigger for SLE, Agent Orange could be a possible trigger. Some veteran disability lawyers list lupus as a possible result of agent orange. If you think you developed lupus due to Agent Orange, consider getting an attorney who specializes in veterans disability benefits.


Gulf War Veterans, Burn Pits and Lupus

Some veterans benefits groups advocate that autoimmune disorders like lupus occur more often in veterans exposed to burn pits during the Gulf War. However, there is no sufficient evidence showing a link between burn pit exposure and lupus. This does not definitively mean that burn pit exposure may not trigger lupus in some people. SLE is an uncommon disorder and it is difficult to prove causation, even when it exists.

Linking Lupus to Military Service

Establishing a connection between lupus and military service is pivotal for VA disability claims. While lupus is not directly linked to specific military exposures, veterans must demonstrate how their service may have triggered or worsened the condition.

Documenting Lupus for VA Disability Claims

To strengthen a VA disability claim for lupus, meticulous documentation is crucial. Medical records outlining the diagnosis, treatment history, and the functional impact of lupus on daily life provide essential evidence for the claim.

The Importance of Nexus Statements

A Nexus statement from a medical professional can be a game-changer. This statement establishes a link between the veteran’s lupus and their military service, reinforcing the case for disability benefits.

Navigating the Claim Process

Initiating a VA disability claim for lupus involves a series of steps. Veterans must gather comprehensive medical evidence, submit a formal claim, and also potentially undergo a medical examination. Navigating this process can be intricate but is essential for a successful outcome. There is also an online tool you can use to view your disability rating.

While lupus and VA disability claims require careful navigation, veterans living with lupus have avenues for support. Understanding the criteria, documenting the impact of lupus, and seeking professional advice can enhance the chances of a successful disability claim.

For information about other disability benefits that may be available, you can also take a look at Can You Work with Lupus? Lupus patients and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

For more in-depth information on VA Disability for Lupus: Navigating Your Claim:

Read more in The Lupus Encyclopedia, edition 2

Look up your symptoms, conditions, and medications in the Index of The Lupus Encyclopedia

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  1. Both of my children have autoimmune diseases. They are different in each child. We have no known history in either my family or my wife’s family. I have always believed my exposure to agent orange had something to do with it. Watching how it affects them is gut wrenching. It leaves me with a gilt complex. This article was very informative and I thank you for posting it

    • So Sorry to hear this, Hal. I’m sure it is hard to get rid of the guilt feelings, and I’m sure you’ve been told this many times, but it isn’t at all your fault! It is our fault for using Agent Orange in the first place.

      I am also ex-Army… and I so much appreciate your service. My cousin saw a lot of Vietnam action, and I cannot imagine what it was like.

      I also wish our nation had treated you guys better when you returned.

      Donald Thomas, MD

  2. I got diagnosed with Lupus last year when I had my first excessive flare. PTSD was diagnosed in 2016. I’m proof of all of this

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