Answers for Pilots - Arthritis

How arthritis can affect your airman medical certification

December 2, 2013

Fueling a CessnaA decade ago, it was an easy step up to the toe hold on the side of a Cessna to check the fuel. Now many of us use a step ladder. Remember swinging easily under the tail to unknot the tie-down rope? Let’s just say it’s not so fluid a motion for some of us anymore. What’s the problem?  It may be too many birthdays and the stiffness that typically comes with them. Or it may be you suffer from arthritis.

The Arthritis Foundation reports that almost half of the 52 million Americans with doctor-diagnosed arthritis say it limits their ability to get around, affecting their work, and other daytime activities. While the Foundation says the increase in the number of those affected is due to the aging population, it is surprised and concerned about the increasing number for whom the disease has progressed to a disability. They speculate it is closely related to the obesity epidemic.

A friend of mine told me this story. Several years ago, he had made an appointment with an orthopedic doctor because of continuing pain and limited mobility in his legs. The doctor took x-rays, did a thorough exam of his hip joints, knees and ankles. After he had studied the results, he gave the diagnosis. “The x-rays show very mild arthritis. Other than that, there is nothing seriously wrong with your joints.” My friend was skeptical, considering the constant pain and the noticeable lack of mobility. The doctor continued, “Your legs hurt for two reasons: They are supporting too much weight,” he eyed his patient’s ample mid-section, “and you are not getting enough exercise.” My friend was insulted, but bit back an angry retort. He confided to me, “After I left the office and calmed down, I decided to give his advice a try. I joined the YMCA and started cycling a couple of times a week on their stationary bicycles. I lost some weight. After a year, I purchased a bicycle of my own and now I ride about 10 miles two or three times a week. The exercise is refreshing, and both my energy level and mobility are incomparably better than they were at the time of that exam. The good doctor was right on.”

There is good news regarding airman medical certification for those who have been diagnosed with arthritis. While certification previously warranted a Special Issuance Medical Certificate, the FAA has implemented new guidelines that allow Aviation Medical Examiners to issue medical certificates without written or verbal FAA approval. Through the new CACI (Conditions Aviation Medical Examiners Can Issue) certification process, worksheets provide both the pilot's treating physicians and the AME with a checklist of information needed for office certification. The process is less complex and time consuming. 

You can download the Arthritis Worksheet and show it to your treating doctor who will provide you with the needed information outlined on the sheet.  Then, take the worksheet and the medical reports to your AME who will confirm that everything on the worksheet meets the guidelines. Your AME can issue your certificate at the time of the FAA physical examination.

If you have further questions about arthritis or any other medical condition, give the specialists in AOPA's Pilot Information Center a call: 800-USA-AOPA (872-2672), Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.