By Monica Rizzo
Updated October 31, 2005 12:00 PM

Teaching sign language in her son Milo’s preschool class last year, Camryn Manheim felt a sharp pain in her left hand as she tried to form a word to a favorite tune. “We were singing ‘Old Mac-Donald had a farm/ E-I-E-I—ouch!’ ” she recalls. Manheim, who played attorney Ellenor Frutt in The Practice from 1997 to 2004, went to several doctors to find out what was causing the stiffness and pain in her hands. After eight months of searching, she got a surprising answer: At 44, Manheim had rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that affects about 2 million people—70 percent of them women. Finding relief through twice-weekly injections, Manheim, who lives with 4-year-old Milo in Venice, Calif., is once again swimming and Rollerblading—and hoping to help others receive a faster diagnosis than she did.

About a year and a half ago, I just wasn’t feeling myself. I was feeling aches and pains in my hands, which was upsetting to me because I’m a sign-language interpreter—I use my hands all the time. I could hold a pen or a cup of coffee, but it was difficult. I was starting to feel fatigued too. I had to have somebody run alongside Milo when he was learning to ride his bicycle without training wheels. I had somebody else in the pool with him. I had somebody else doing hula hoop with him. That’s not the kind of mother I wanted to be. I don’t know that he could tell I couldn’t be there for him as much as I would have liked—certainly not in a way that he could express. But it was clear to me and that made me sad.

So I went to an orthopedist and his response was all these little tendons in my fingers were tight. And the doctor said, “Well, maybe you’re being a little overactive with your son.” That was not the answer I wanted to hear. So he sent me to hand therapy, and I went for several months. It wasn’t really improving my hands. Then the therapist gave me hand braces that kept my fingers folded down into the palms of my hands. It didn’t help.

Her doctor then prescribed steroids.

Immediately I felt some relief because they are an anti-inflammatory. But as soon as I would go off them the swelling and the pain would return. In between all this I did Elvis [the 2005 CBS miniseries]. I took a lot of ibuprofen. But I’m an avid knuckle cracker. I tried to crack them one day and it sent the most incredible pain up my arm. I was determined to find out why I was in so much pain.

Finally, in May, she got a referral to a rheumatologist.

So I get there and he’s like, “Put the gown on.” And I said, “Why do I have to wear a gown? It’s my hands that hurt.” And I’m thinking to myself I didn’t even wear nice underwear that day. He did blood and bone density tests and took X-rays. When he told me it was rheumatoid arthritis I said that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I’m too young. Well, I learned I was mistaken.

I didn’t know what rheumatoid arthritis was. It just sounded bad and debilitating. But the doctor told me there had been breakthroughs. Now, twice a week I give myself a shot of a drug that reduces inflammation. I think it took about three weeks for me to notice a difference. And then I would say after about the second month I wanted to marry my doctor. What a relief! My son is 4½ now. He thinks giving me my shot is about the most fun thing in the whole wide world. Maybe he’s trying to get back at me for the toy I wouldn’t buy him because he’s always like, “Can we do it again, Mom?” He has a sense that I take medication so that I’m healthy and happy and I can be there for him.

Manheim has slimmed down visibly in the last two years.

I started to add exercise into my life and to add healthy eating and taking care of myself. I want to be a great role model for Milo in everyway, so I had to start with myself. I play racquetball, Milo and I swim, we Rollerblade, we ride bikes, we hike. I still play guitar. I feel great. You know, the thing is you have to get the proper diagnosis and then you can get the proper treatment. Then you can put it behind you and live a full and eventful life.