Blue’s Duncan James opens up about condition that almost left him in wheelchair

The former Blue singer tells James Moore about the rare condition that could have left him in a wheelchair.

Tottering on stage in high heels, Duncan James struggled through each performance with excruciating back pain.

But as he toured the country with hit musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the star had no idea that his problems would soon develop into a rare and serious condition that could have left him in awheelchair.

Duncan had been suffering with a slipped disc, but it began crushing the nerves at the base of his spine leading to dangerous Cauda Equina Syndrome.

As well as back pain, it can cause numbness in the nether regions,
loss ofbladder and bowel control, sexual dysfunction, paralysis of the legs and should be treated as a medical emergency.

Duncan James

Now 42, Duncan remembers having a weak back as a child that got worse as he began his pop career in his 20s.

“I was dancing around on stage a lot more,” he explains. “I would get this pain in my lower back to the point where I went and saw a specialist and they said I had a protrusion in my disc.

“I had an epidural in my spine to numb all of that area. That operation lasted me for about 10 years and I kind of got on with my life without worrying about or feeling pain.”

But when Duncan got a part in Priscilla five years ago, the agony dramatically returned.

“I had to learn to walk in heels and the feeling came back 10 times worse than before,” he recalls.

An MRI scan showed the disc’s position had deteriorated and doctors advised him to have an operation to remove some of it.

But facing weeks of recovery Duncan asked for another injection instead so he could continue acting.

Duncan as Tick in Priscilla Queen of the Desert

He also used massage, acupuncture and physio to try to manage the pain. It was a decision he would come to regret.

One morning he woke barely able to move and within hours the situation had deteriorated.

“I was in agony,” he says. “I felt my left leg start to go numb and started thinking that there was something really wrong. I realised
I couldn’t go to the toilet. I’d lost bladdercontrol.”

Rushed to hospital for an MRI, a medic told Duncan he needed an urgent operation.

“He said, ‘Your disc has fallen out of your back and it has landed on your sciatic nerve – you are going into Cauda Equina Syndrome.’

“I was like, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘You basically have to have an operation today. If we cannot remove this disc your sciatic nerve is going to die and you’re going to be in all sorts of trouble.’

“I was really scared. I remember crying because of the thought I might be paralysed; that I was going to be catheterised for the rest of my life. They told me you can have erection problems and the numbness can even go into your privates as well.

“I was 38 and all of a sudden I was told I might have problems down there and it was scary.”

Duncan is one quarter of Blue

Duncan’s operation was only partially successful. While the pressure on his nerves was relieved and he regained bladder control, a few days after the surgery, while watching TV with his mum, he felt fluid running down his back.

The scar on his back had opened up and he was leaking spinal fluid.

Doctors told Duncan he was at high risk of getting meningitis and he was rushed back into surgery for another operation to rectify the issue.

The singer spent weeks on ­painkillers and needed to use a stick while recovering.

“I couldn’t run or even walk properly,” says the star, who admits the condition impacted his love life. “I’d gone through so much trauma, the last thing I wanted to do was have sex. I was single and my mindset was about rehabilitation.”

While the main danger is gone, Duncan has been left with some long-term issues.

“The feeling never came back in my left leg. I’m still numb from my bum down to my knee. You could stick a pin in my buttock and I wouldn’t know. I can feel my calf muscle but I’ve lost the feeling in the left side of my foot. I’ve had knock-on problems with other discs too.”

Duncan has been diagnosed with a rare condition

Now Duncan, who is currently dating Belgian Rodrigo Reis, is determined to keep himself fit.

He’s been inspired by the example of his 15-year-old daughter Tianie Finn, from a previous relationship, who is training to be a ballerina.

“I’ve realised it’s so important to make sure your core strength is good because it’s what gives you support and holds you up.”

Looking back, Duncan admits he found the experience traumatic.

“It knocked my confidence. I’d felt invincible up until then. My body has taken a battering from this and physically I’m nowhere as fit as I was.

“I wish I had listened and had the operation. It’s not worth what has happened to me down the line. I wanted the quick fix. But I do think positively. In four years I haven’t been back to hospital. I’m not catheterised and I can still be active and pretty much lead a normal life.

The singer has to put up with side effects

“I know a lot of people with Cauda Equina have suffered a lot worse. It opened my eyes. Up until then I just thought I had a bad back.

“It made me realise that I had to look after myself. It was a such a wake-up call.

“It made me question my mortality, my food choices, everything I was putting in my body.

“It was a really scary time, but it put life in perspective.”

*Duncan is ambassador for Cauda Equina Champions Charity. For more information visit

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