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doctor checking patient's mouth
doctor checking patient's mouth
doctor checking patient's mouth

Vocal Cord Disorders

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What are vocal cord disorders?

Vocal cord disorders are any anatomical or functional issue that affects the vocal cords. The vocal cords (also called vocal folds) are two bands of smooth muscle tissue found in the larynx (voice box). The vocal cords vibrate and air passes through the cords from the lungs to produce the sound of your voice.

Some of the more common vocal cord disorders include the following.

Vocal Cord Disorder Description

Laryngitis

Laryngitis causes a raspy or hoarse voice due to inflammation of the vocal cords.

Vocal nodules

Vocal nodules are noncancerous calluses on the vocal cords caused by vocal abuse. Vocal nodules are often a problem for professional singers. 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.

Vocal polyps

A vocal polyp is a soft, noncancerous growth, similar to a blister. They can include blood within the blister that resolves over time to produce a clear 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. When one vocal cord is paralyzed, the voice can be weak or food or liquids can slip into the trachea and lungs, whereby people have trouble swallowing and may choke or cough when they eat. Patients with both vocal cords paralyzed may have trouble breathing. Vocal cord paralysis may be caused by the following:

  • Head, neck, or chest injury.
  • Problem during surgery.
  • Stroke.
  • Tumor.
  • 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?

The most common cause of vocal fold disorders is vocal abuse or misuse. The type of vocal cord disorder (see above) may have different causes. 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 two weeks should be brought to the attention of your health care provider. It is important to see a voice specialist or ENT for a full examination of the vocal folds if symptoms do not resolve within four weeks.

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, the health care provider may examine the vocal cords internally with a small scope called a laryngoscope.

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 medicines, 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.
  • Medicine.
  • 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 healthcare provider.
  • Vocal cord disorders caused by abuse or misuse are easily preventable.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • 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 name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • 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.

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