Vocal Cord Disorders

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Vocal Cord Disorders

What are vocal cord disorders?

Vocal cord disorders can affect your voice or your ability to talk. These disorders affect the vocal cords. The vocal cords (also called vocal folds) are 2 bands of smooth muscle tissue found in the voice box (larynx). The larynx is set in the neck at the top of the windpipe (trachea). The vocal cords vibrate and air passes through the cords from the lungs to make the sound of your voice. The sound is then sent through the throat, nose, and mouth. The sound of each person's voice is determined by the size and shape of the vocal cords. And by the size and shape of the throat, nose, and mouth.

Some of the more common vocal cord disorders include:

Laryngitis

Laryngitis causes a raspy or hoarse voice due to swelling (inflammation) of the vocal cords. It can be caused by using your voice too much, infections, breathing in irritants, or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux).

Vocal nodules

These are noncancer growths on the vocal cords caused by vocal abuse. Vocal nodules are often a problem for professional singers. The nodules are small and callus-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.

Vocal polyps

A vocal polyp is a soft, noncancer growth. It is a lot like a blister. Vocal polyps cause the voice to be hoarse, low, and breathy.

Vocal cord paralysis

This may happen when one or both vocal cords doesn’t open or close correctly. It is a common disorder. It can range from fairly 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. This condition may be caused by:

  • Head, neck, or chest injury

  • Problem during surgery

  • Stroke

  • Tumor

  • Lung or thyroid cancer

  • Certain neurological disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson disease

  • Viral infection

Treatment may include surgery and voice therapy. Sometimes no treatment is needed and a person recovers on their own.

What causes vocal cord disorders?

Vocal cord disorders are often caused by vocal abuse or misuse. This includes using the voice too much when singing, talking, coughing, or yelling. Smoking and breathing in irritants are also vocal abuse.

What are the symptoms of vocal cord disorders?

Each person may have slightly different symptoms. They are 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?

If you have any hoarseness or change in voice that lasts longer than 2 weeks, see your healthcare provider. (Sometimes the hoarseness may be from laryngeal cancer.)

You will have a complete health history and physical exam. The healthcare provider may also check the vocal cords internally with a small scope called a laryngoscope. In the case of paralysis, your healthcare provider may also do a laryngeal EMG (electromyography). This test measures the electrical current in the vocal cords.  

How are vocal cord disorders treated?

Vocal cord disorders caused by abuse or misuse are easy to prevent. In addition, most vocal cord disorders can be reversed.

Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Treatment may include any of these:

  • 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 your ability to talk.

  • Some of the more common vocal cord disorders include laryngitis, vocal nodules, vocal polyps, and vocal cord paralysis.

  • They are often caused by using the voice too much when singing, talking, coughing, or yelling. Smoking and breathing in irritants are also factors.

  • Symptoms may include a raspy, hoarse, low, or breathy voice. You may also have trouble swallowing or coughing.

  • Treatment may include resting your voice, taking medicine, stopping the behavior that caused the disorder, seeing a speech-language pathologist, and surgery.

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.

Online Medical Reviewer: Ashutosh Kacker MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Daphne Pierce-Smith RN MSN CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Ronald Karlin MD
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2018
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