Vocal Cord Disorders
What are vocal cord disorders?
The vocal cords (also called vocal folds) are two bands of smooth muscle tissue found in the larynx (voice box). The larynx is set in the neck at the top of the trachea (windpipe). The vocal cords vibrate and air passes through the cords from the lungs to produce the sound of your voice. The sound is then sent through the throat, nose, and mouth, giving the sound "resonance." The sound of each person's voice is determined by the size and shape of the vocal cords and the size and shape of the throat, nose, and mouth. Vocal cord disorders affect the vocal cords.
Some of the more common vocal cord disorders include the following.
Laryngitis causes a raspy or hoarse voice due to inflammation of the vocal cords. Laryngitis can be caused by excessive use of the voice, infections, inhaled irritants, or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD, or heartburn).
Vocal nodules are noncancerous growths on the vocal cords caused by vocal abuse. Vocal nodules are often a problem for professional singers. The nodules are small and callous-like. They most often grow in pairs (one on each cord). The nodules most often form on parts of the vocal cords that get the most pressure when the cords come together and vibrate. Vocal nodules cause the voice to be hoarse, low, and breathy.
A vocal polyp is a soft, noncancerous growth, similar to a blister. Voice polyps cause the voice to be hoarse, low, and breathy.
Vocal cord paralysis
Paralysis of the vocal cords may happen when one or both vocal cords doesn’t open or close properly. A common disorder, this condition can range from relatively mild to life-threatening. When one or both vocal cords are paralyzed, food or liquids can slip into the trachea and lungs. A person may have trouble swallowing and coughing. Vocal cord paralysis may be caused by the following:
- Head, neck, or chest injury
- Problem during surgery
- Lung or thyroid cancer
- Certain neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease
- Viral infection
Treatment may include surgery and voice therapy. Sometimes, no treatment is necessary and a person recovers on his or her own.
What causes vocal cord disorders?Vocal cord disorders are often caused by vocal abuse or misuse. This includes excessive use of the voice when singing, talking, coughing or yelling. Smoking and inhaling irritants are also considered vocal abuse.
What are the symptoms of vocal cord disorders?Symptoms vary, based on the type of vocal cord disorder. They include changes in your normal voice such as: a raspy or hoarse voice; or, a hoarse, low, and breathy voice. Vocal cord paralysis may also cause trouble swallowing and coughing.
How are vocal cord disorders diagnosed?
Any hoarseness or change in voice that lasts longer than 2 weeks should be brought to the attention of your health care provider. (Sometimes the hoarseness may be from laryngeal cancer.)
In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, the doctor may examine the vocal cords internally with a small scope called a laryngoscope. In the case of paralysis, your doctor may also do a laryngeal electromyography that measures the electrical current in the vocal cords.
How are vocal cord disorders treated?
Vocal cord disorders caused by abuse or misuse are easily preventable. In addition, most disorders of the vocal cords can be reversed. Your health care provider will figure out the best treatment based on:
- How old you are
- Your overall health and medical history
- How sick you are
- How well you can handle specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- How long the condition is expected to last
- Your opinion or preference
Treatment may include any of the following:
- Resting the voice
- Stopping the behavior that caused the vocal cord disorder
- A referral to a speech-language pathologist who specializes in treating voice, speech, language, or swallowing disorders
- Surgery to remove growths
Key points about vocal cord disorders
- Vocal cord disorders can affect your voice or ability to talk.
- Some of the more common vocal cord disorders include laryngitis, vocal nodules, vocal polyps, and vocal cord paralysis.
- Vocal cord disorders are often caused by vocal abuse or misuse.
- Symptoms may include a raspy, hoarse, low, or breathy voice, or trouble swallowing or coughing.
- Any hoarseness or change in voice that lasts longer than 2 weeks should be brought to the attention of your health care provider.
- Vocal cord disorders caused by abuse or misuse are easily preventable.
Next stepsTips to help you get the most from a visit to your health care provider:
- Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
- Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
- At the visit, write down the names of new medicines, treatments, or tests, and any new instructions your provider gives you.
- If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
- Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
- Fetterman, Anne, RN, BSN
- Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP