x-ray photo to the left with a patient photo on the right

News | 22 days ago

Nick's SpineFirst Journey: Overcoming Pain and Pursuing Passion

Chronic back pain interfered with Nick Bagnardi’s passion for powerlifting. The SpineFirst team performed a spinal fusion that helped the 43-year-old return to powerlifting in only eight months.

When Nick Bagnardi first heard the words “spinal fusion” as the best option to treat his chronic back pain, he was hesitant.

“My initial diagnosis was scary, especially given the previous knee surgeries I had,” Nick recalls. “They didn't go as expected, and I was still dealing with lingering pain from them.”

Nick suffered from back pain for years. As a competitive powerlifter, Nick spent hours training at the gym. But the pain made his workouts brutally painful, causing him to stop squatting and deadlifting during flare-ups. Even sitting or standing too long caused him severe pain.

Nick’s pain peaked during the six months leading up to his first visit with Dr. Daniel Leas, an orthopedic spine surgeon with Carolina NeuroSurgery & Spine Associates (CNSA) and a member of the SpineFirst team. SpineFirst is a partnership of two established experts in the spine field, Atrium Health and CNSA. Leas was the second doctor Nick consulted about his spine condition.

Despite Nick’s hesitation, Leas was confident that the spinal fusion surgery was the right path.

“It took some encouragement and a lot of trust, but Dr. Leas helped me come to terms with surgery being the best option to lessen the pain I was in 24/7,” Nick says.

With Leas’ guidance, Nick underwent a spinal fusion to tackle his relentless discomfort.

Creating stability, reducing pain

Nick had his spinal fusion at Atrium Health Cabarrus, one of six SpineFirst surgical facilities. The procedure is used to join two or more vertebrae in the spine to create stability, reduce pain and prevent further damage to the spinal cord and nerves.

“I was nervous for the surgery and the pain and recovery to follow,” Nick recalls. “It was the biggest procedure I’d ever been through. Luckily, Dr. Leas has an incredible bedside manner that helped keep me calm.”

During Nick’s procedure, Leas used bone grafts to fuse his vertebrae. Metal implants, such as screws, rods or plates, may also be used to hold the vertebrae in place while the fusion occurs. Over time, the bone graft material fuses with the existing bone, creating a single, solid bone mass.

Nick experienced almost immediate pain relief from the surgery. As soon as he stood up in the recovery area, he knew he was “good to go.”

An incredible experience

Nick found comfort in the care Leas and the SpineFirst team provided.

“Every step – from the first meeting to my one-year checkup – has been amazing,” says Nick. “Dr. Leas has an incredible demeanor and is extremely personable.”

Nick was especially impressed by the dedication of Leas’ physician administrative assistant, Jennifer Buchanan, who offered support and professionalism throughout Nick's health journey.

“Jennifer really goes above and beyond,” Nick says. “She not only takes her job seriously but also cares about every patient.” 

Nick benefited from the amenities and expertise offered by Atrium Health Cabarrus. In 2022, the hospital earned the Joint Commission’s Advanced Certification in Spine Surgery for demonstrating exceptional patient care. This certification is evidence of the staff’s ability to provide the highest quality spine services and medical expertise to patients throughout the Greater Charlotte Market.

Patients also benefit from the collaborative teamwork at Atrium Health Cabarrus, which enables them to deliver exceptional customer service and high-quality care.

Back to lifting in only eight months

During Nick’s recovery, he followed Leas’ instructions carefully and saw outstanding results. He can now lift, walk and bend without any back pain.

After about eight months, Leas gave him the OK to resume training. While most activities can be resumed three months after a spinal fusion, Nick’s physical demands required a longer recovery before returning to powerlifting. Nick left Leas’ office and went straight to the gym.

When asked to reflect on his experience, Nick offers this simple advice: Don't let fear hold you back.

“The weight that comes with spinal fusion is heavy, but it’s worth every pound it carries,” Nick says. “The most important thing is to follow the recovery instructions. Get up and move, but don’t overdo it. And never allow yourself to give up.”

Nick is speaking from experience. On his 43rd birthday – a little over a year after his spinal fusion – Nick participated in the Shamrock Showdown, a United States Powerlifting Association competition. At the event, he squatted 552 pounds and performed a 652-pound deadlift. He took first place in the Men’s Master Class and second place in the Men’s Open Age. He also set two state records for his age and weight class in the deadlift and total weight categories.

“I felt incredible,” explains Nick. “It was a great day and one heck of a birthday gift to myself!”

“Dr. Leas told me there was nothing I couldn’t do once I was cleared, and I’ve shown him how right he was,” Nick adds. “My lifting has actually improved. And I can go on long walks without my feet going numb. Dr. Leas has removed this black cloud that kept me from doing the things I love – and now I’m doing them!” 

As Nick continues his journey, he hopes to inspire others facing similar challenges by sharing his story of resilience and trust.


Additional resources: Spinal fusion indicators

Deciding whether spinal fusion is the right treatment for you involves careful consideration and consultation with a spine specialist. While each patient's case is unique and requires personalized evaluation, here are some general indicators that may suggest spinal fusion as a viable treatment option:

  • Persistent pain. If you're experiencing persistent back or neck pain that hasn't responded to conservative treatments, such as physical therapy, medication or injections, spinal fusion may be worth considering.
  • Degenerative disk disease. Patients with degenerative disk disease, where the disks between the vertebrae break down, may benefit from spinal fusion. This condition often leads to spinal instability, which fusion surgery can help correct.
  • Spinal stenosis. This condition occurs when the spinal canal narrows, putting pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. If symptoms such as leg pain, numbness or weakness persist despite conservative treatments, spinal fusion may be recommended to decompress the affected nerves and stabilize the spine.
  • When a vertebra slips forward over the one below it, it often causes pain and nerve compression. In cases where the slippage is severe or causes neurological symptoms, spinal fusion may be necessary to realign the spine and alleviate pressure on the nerves.
  • Traumatic injury. Patients who have sustained traumatic injuries to the spine, such as fractures or dislocations, may require spinal fusion to stabilize the spine and facilitate healing. This is especially true if the injury caused spinal instability or neurological deficits.
  • Failed previous surgeries. In some cases, patients who have undergone previous spine surgeries may experience persistent symptoms or complications. Spinal fusion may be considered as a revision surgery to address unresolved issues or instability resulting from earlier procedures.

Spinal fusion is a significant surgical procedure with potential risks and limitations. Before making any decisions, it's crucial to consult a spine specialist who can thoroughly evaluate your condition and discuss treatment options. Then, the specialist can provide personalized recommendations based on your medical history, imaging studies and individual needs.


Learn more about SpineFirst and get access to the best possible spine care by the region’s largest team of spine specialists, with over 80 years of experience. To learn more about SpineFirst, visit SpineFirst.com. To make an appointment with a SpineFirst provider, call 704-831-4000. To equest a second opinion for spine surgery, visit SpineFirst.com/second-opinion.