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What is rheumatoid arthritis? Kathleen Turner details battle with autoimmune disease

“It’s hard to understand the level of pain that this disease brings,” the actress said in a new much-talked-about interview.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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Kathleen Turner was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, with hit after hit in the 1980s, when she seemed to disappear from the screen. Now, she’s opening up about one of the major reasons for her absence: Rheumatoid arthritis, which caused debilitating pain and required medication that made her mind “fuzzy,” among other side effects.

In a new interview with Vulture, the actress revealed what it was like to work with Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson and Nicolas Cage, but also how the diagnosis derailed her career.

ROMANCING THE STONE, Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, 1984
Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in "Romancing the Stone," released in 1984.Everett Collection

“It’s hard to understand the level of pain that this disease brings,” Turner, 64, told the website.

“Rheumatoid arthritis hit in my late 30s — the last of my years in which Hollywood would consider me a sexually appealing leading lady … At that time there was very little public knowledge about autoimmune diseases, so my illness was a source of bad mystery.”

The only effective treatment in the 1990s, when Turner was diagnosed, was “massive doses of steroids” with “massive side effects,” she added. She recalled times when she wanted to pick up a bottle and couldn’t grip it, so people assumed she was drunk.

Kathleen Turner attends the 2018 Monster Mania Con at NJ Crowne Plaza Hotel on March 10, 2018 in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Kathleen Turner in 2018. Bobby Bank / Getty Images

Some medications changed her looks and interfered with her ability to memorize lines, so the star of “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Peggy Sue Got Married” and “Romancing the Stone” found herself insecure at work.

Much has changed for rheumatoid arthritis patients since that time.

What is rheumatoid arthritis?

It’s an autoimmune disease: The body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, causing inflammation, joint pain and swelling, the American College of Rheumatology explains. If the inflammation continues for a long time, it can cause permanent damage to the joint.

Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, affects more than 1.3 million Americans, with about three-quarters of the patients women. The disease can start at any age, but it most often begins between 30 and 50.

The cause is a mystery, but it may run in families. Risk factors include smoking and obesity.

What are the symptoms?

Patients suffer from joint pain, stiffness — particularly for a long time in the morning — swelling and loss of joint function. Joints in the hands, wrists and knees are commonly affected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes.

For Turner, her right wrist was particularly painful, she said in the interview: “Just touching it would make me want to scream.”

Other symptoms include loss of energy, low fever, loss of appetite and rheumatoid nodules — lumps that grow under the skin in the elbow and hands, according to the American College of Rheumatology.

How is rheumatoid arthritis treated?

There is no cure, but therapy has “improved greatly” in the past 30 years, the American College of Rheumatology notes.

“Current treatments give most patients good or excellent relief of symptoms and let them keep functioning at, or near, normal levels,” the group explains.

It’s a far cry from Turner’s treatment options in the 1990s, which involved lots of steroids that made her puffy. As the pain got worse, she turned to alcohol, she said.

After confirming the RA diagnosis with a combination of blood tests, physical exams and scans, patients are now prescribed disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), which slow the illness and prevent joint deformities, along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, and low-dose corticosteroids.

To keep joints healthy, patients are encouraged to walk and strengthen their muscles, but rest or gently stretch during times when symptoms get worse.

For Turner, who continues her passion for theater and is now teaching acting, it’s a time for feeling better and branching out.

“I’m getting stronger all the time,” she told Vulture. “So let’s find out what I can do.”

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