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Back in the Fight

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A surgical procedure called XLIF and the support group The Better Way Back help patients return to a more fulfilling, pain-free life

If you have ever watched a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fight, you know one thing to be true: A knockout makes for exciting TV. In the past decade, Ultimate Fighting and MMA have become so popular with the American public that many of us subscribe to fights so we can watch our favorite opponents face off in the ring or the cage.

What we don’t see on TV, however, can be the debilitating effects that this extreme sport have on the body—specifically the back. Just ask Nate “Rock” Quarry, an MMA professional with 16 fights under his belt to date. Mixed martial arts captivated Nate from the moment he watched his first UFC fight at age 24. Eager to master the discipline, he started training at the local gym, soon becoming qualified to compete. Hard work, a stint on The Ultimate Fighter reality television show and a gracious demeanor all combined to launch his successful career as a UFC fighter.

Then came back pain. At first, it was little more than a bothersome ache, but over the next few years, the pain turned into an opponent more formidable than any he’d ever faced on the mat. Nate tried medication, physical therapy and chiropractic treatment, but the pain was relentless. “Everything I was doing was so painful,” he says. “I was in so much pain, I could hardly train at all. I was on all sorts of painkillers to get through the day. They just masked the pain. It was a path to nowhere.”
The pain didn’t just interfere with his training. It also prevented him from participating in activities with his daughter. “I couldn’t even pick up my little girl because I was in so much pain,” he recalls. “I had very little energy. I would have to watch her play instead of being able to chase her around.”

Concerned about losing his career and tired of the daily struggle to function normally, Nate sought treatment. His surgeon diagnosed him with degenerative disc disease and suggested he undergo a minimally disruptive surgical procedure called XLIF (eXtreme Lateral Interbody Fusion). This procedure utilizes a lateral approach (through the patient’s side) to access the affected area, while allowing for minimal disruption of the tissue and musculature surrounding the spine.

Even after learning that patients can experience low blood loss, a short hospital stay and a fast recovery with this procedure, Nate was in no rush to schedule time in the operating room. “I was scared,” he admits. “Everyone told me that my life would never be the same if I had back surgery.”

After several months, Nate decided to undergo a single-level minimally disruptive XLIF procedure in June 2006. Nate was up and walking the day after surgery. Within one week, he was discharged from the hospital and able to walk up and down stairs. “After the surgery, I no longer had pain in my back,” he recalls. To facilitate his recovery, he began a program of core exercises and stretching. Three months later, he began light training again and six months later, began training for his comeback fight. “Getting back into fighting shape was a struggle,” he says.

Nate remained focused on his goal and set his sights on his next fight. He proudly returned to the Octagon to face his next opponent just 15 months after his surgery—and was victorious in a knockout over his opponent. “My life was reduced so much because of the back pain,” recalls Nate. “Now I have a new lease on life without back pain.”

That new lease on life carried over to Nate’s desire to thank the company that created the XLIF procedure. NuVasive Inc., a San Diego–based medical device company, is focused on the design, development and marketing of products for the surgical treatment of spine disorders. Coincidentally, NuVasive was working to develop a patient support, education and empowerment tool to help chronic back and leg pain patients like Nate get access to treatment options. Inspired, Nate partnered with NuVasive to become a paid spokesman for this program, called The Better Way Back.

Dedicated to raising awareness of spine disorders and educating patients and clinicians about treatment options, The Better Way Back community shares valuable information while recognizing the importance of helping patients overcome misconceptions about spine surgery. Patients and their loved ones are able to communicate with Patient Ambassadors and ask questions about their personal experiences with recovery. Patients and family can also read articles that are relevant to issues patients face on a daily basis and watch inspirational videos of individuals who have found the better way back.

In fact, The Better Way Back even features a free book that includes the real stories of 12 patients who underwent the minimally disruptive XLIF procedure and were able to return to active lives after years of suffering with back or leg pain. “I am honored to have my story featured in the book,” explains Nate. “Each chapter is unique, but all of the stories have similarities in terms of the journeys that we all embarked on. I hope that by reading this book, people will find inspiration and motivation to seek treatment themselves. No one should have to live their life in pain.”

In addition to sharing his story through the book and on the program’s Web site, Nate plays an active role in The Better Way Back program. As the program’s spokesman and Ultimate Ambassador, Nate travels around the country and speaks at patient seminars hosted by hospitals and spine-related organizations. Nate speaks with surgeons and patients alike about his personal journey to recovery as well as the power of The Better Way Back program. To find out more about Nate’s travel plans and speaking engagements, visit www.TheBetterWayBack.org.