Competitive Bodybuilder Back to Champion Status After Minimally Invasive Spinal Fusion

Baptist Health Miami Neuroscience Institute

Julia Buitrago, 53, is the epitome of physical fitness, a competitive bodybuilder and owner of the Body Concept by Julia gym along with her husband Mario, a boxing coach. Ms. Buitrago overcame obesity as a teenager and young mother in her 20s. After losing 40 pounds, she committed herself to working out regularly and teaching fitness classes. She started competing as a bodybuilder in 2005.

“What I love the most about the body building world -- it's the process of changing the body,” she said. “It's the art of the muscle … it's just marvelous. So, being a bodybuilder comes with some injuries. And some of the injuries that I have had with the process -- it's been a back injury. It's kept on aggravating, and aggravated to the point where I was not able to go to a mall and walk more than five minutes because I was in so much pain.”

(Watch video and hear from Julia Buitrago, who underwent lateral lumbar interbody fusion, and Michael Gomez, M.D., neurosurgeon and director of minimally invasive spinal surgery at Baptist Health Miami Neuroscience Institute. Video by Alcyene de Almeida Rodrigues.)

The strains of weight-training on muscles and joints at a bodybuilder’s level can take their toll—although her back condition was not caused by her bodybuilding regimen. Ms. Buitrago was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis by Michael Gomez, M.D., neurosurgeon and director of minimally invasive spinal surgery at Baptist Health Miami Neuroscience Institute. Spondylolisthesis is a degenerative condition that occurs in adults at middle-age or older. It occurs most commonly in older adults as a result of osteoarthritis of the spine – and not caused by excessive training with weights.
Recalls Dr. Gomez: “Julia came to see me because she wanted to walk. In spite of being so physically fit, she was able to do squats and dead lifts and lift heavy weight, but she couldn't just go for a walk like a normal person.”

Michael Gomez, M.D., neurosurgeon and director of minimally invasive spinal surgery at Baptist Health Miami Neuroscience Institute.

With spondylolisthesis, one of the bones in the spine slips forward and out of place. This may occur anywhere along the spine, but is most common in the lower back (lumbar spine). In some people, this causes no symptoms at all. Others may have back and leg pain that ranges from mild to severe. “This is typically related to degenerative changes of the spine, and sometimes this comes up at 60 or 70 years old, and other times it comes up at 40 or 50 years old,” explains Dr. Gomez.

“When I saw Dr. Gomez, he made me feel very comfortable,” recalls Ms. Buitrago, who is a mother of four and a grandmother of a 3-year-old. “He understood what my concern was and he explained everything. He understood what were my needs as an athlete.”

She underwent a
lateral lumbar interbody fusion, “which is sort of a newer surgical approach, considered a minimally invasive type approach to the spine,” said Dr. Gomez. “Rather than making a traditional midline incision in the back and splitting the muscles, we use an alternative approach through the side of the abdomen, which results in less blood loss, less tissue injury, and then really gives us a better ability to correct the deformity by using a large implant with large surface area.”

Ms. Buitrago’s recovery has been remarkably swift and she’s back competing as a champion bodybuilder.

“Ten months after the surgery, I got first place in my category,” she said. “I got first place ‘open’ and I got my ‘all-around.’ I was able to train for a bodybuilding competition … Today, I feel amazing. I'm still training. I'm writing a book about my story, and I feel great. I'm able to lift every plate. I'm able to lift more than I was lifting before.”

Dr. Gomez said that her recover has impressed him “beyond what I expected.”

“I'm so proud of Julia, and to see her get back to a normal life, even better life than before,” he said. “To me, it's just fantastic.”

Ms. Buitrago exudes much gratitude for Dr. Gomez and his team at the Institute.

“Dr. Gomez gave me the ability of continuing my dream as a bodybuilder,” she said. “Not only that, Dr. Gomez expanded my life -- expanded my career as a personal trainer and as a fitness instructor. Dr. Gomez treatment gave me the ability to walk, but he even gave me the ability to run. And for that, I'm grateful and thankful.”

To request an appointment at Baptist Health Miami Neuroscience Institute, call 786-596-3876 or fill out an appointment request form.


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