The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Student learns to be flexible

Junior Chelsea Smith withdrew from school last year because of hip pain caused by hypermobility syndrome. DTH/Ali Cengiz
Junior Chelsea Smith withdrew from school last year because of hip pain caused by hypermobility syndrome. DTH/Ali Cengiz

When Chelsea Smith woke up on Sept. 8, 2008, the junior never imagined she’d be withdrawn from UNC by the end of the week.

That morning, she felt an inexplicable pain in her hip. The ache did not go away.

The next day, Smith struggled to walk. By the end of the week, the pain had spread to her other hip and to her back. She could not get out of bed.

“It felt like someone was pulling my hip out of the socket with a hot crowbar,” she said.

Unable to continue with classes and campus life, Smith returned to her parent’s home in Asheville, beginning an unbearably painful six months on bed rest.

“Boredom doesn’t even enter the equation; living in that much pain is like a full-time job,” Smith recalled of her half-year bed stay.

Smith and her family visited doctor after doctor hoping to find an answer for the pain.

Despite numerous MRIs and blood tests, none of the doctors could find anything wrong with the otherwise seemingly fit Smith. Some began questioning whether her pain was as extreme as she explained it, or even real at all.

Unsure about how to help the girl with the mysterious ailment, some of the doctors told Smith not to make any plans for her life.

Debra Smith, Chelsea Smith’s mother, said the ignorance of so many doctors concerned her.

“I can’t imagine a medical doctor telling that to anybody, but especially a young person with their whole life in front of them,” she said.

Six months later, Chelsea Smith was told by a family doctor to see physical therapist Amira Ranney.

Ranney diagnosed her with hypermobility syndrome within five minutes of meeting her.

“Hypermobility syndrome is a connective tissue disorder in which the ligaments and joint caps have more extensibility that what we would consider normal,” Ranney explained.

Those with hypermobility are usually very flexible and can often contort their bodies in ways that normal people cannot, like bending their fingers backward.

Smith quickly learned that her hypermobility had caused one of her hips to pop out of place, resting on top of the other one.

Equipped with the proper diagnosis, she learned new exercises that could strengthen her muscles and received a special belt that she wears to keep her hips in alignment.

Even with proper treatment, however, Smith’s daily life has changed dramatically. The pain makes it difficult for her to sit in a chair for an extended amount of time. This eliminates such activities like catching a movie with friends or attending traditional classes.

“The hard part is I have to create my new normal. There’s no going back to normal. Normal is bad for my body,” Smith said.

Contact the Features Editor at

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Special Print Edition
The Daily Tar Heel Victory Paper for November 20, 2023