One of the most important and underappreciated muscles in the body are the vocal cords. They are located inside the voice box (larynx) which is located at the top of the windpipe (trachea). They consist of 2 bands of elastic muscle tissue located side by side. The vocal cords are the reason we can talk, sing, whisper, shout, and laugh.
Unfortunately, they can be injured due to misuse or overuse just like any other muscle. In addition, infections and lesions can damage the vocal cords, leading to a variety of voice complications. Keep reading for some of the most common vocal cord disorders.
Vocal Cord Lesions
Vocal cord lesions are noncancerous growths that result from vocal overuse or vocal cord trauma. There are 3 main types of lesions:
- Vocal Cord Nodule: This type of lesion is often called a singer’s nodule because they result from repetitive overuse of the voice and are often seen in professional or amateur singers. When you overuse or misuse your voice, the vocal folds swell and get harder over time. Callous-like growths (nodules) can develop. If vocal abuse continues, these nodules can become larger and stiffer.
- Vocal Cord Polyp: Like nodules, polyps can be caused by overuse or misuse of the voice. However, they can also develop after just a single episode of vocal abuse – for example, after a night out in which you’re shouting over the loud music at a bar, or cheering at a sporting event. They can occur on either one or both vocal cords and are characterized by a reddish color due to a high concentration of blood vessels. Their size and shape can vary, but they are larger than nodules and look more like blisters rather than callouses.
- Vocal Cord Cyst: Cysts (fluid-filled sacs) are less common than nodules and polyps but can still be caused by voice misuse, overuse, or abuse (phonotrauma). Additionally, they can develop when vocal cord glands that secrete music become clogged. There are 2 types of vocal cord cysts: mucus retention cysts and epidermoid cysts.
Aside from phonotrauma and clogged mucus glands, vocal cord lesions can be caused by smoking, alcohol use, sinusitis, allergies, or using the voice when you have laryngitis or an upper respiratory infection.
Changes in your voice are one of the main signs that a vocal cord lesion has developed. These changes may include hoarseness, breathiness, hearing multiple tones, a loss of vocal range, vocal fatigue (feeling tired after talking), a low or deep voice, or a complete loss of voice.
Laryngitis is an inflammation of the voice box caused by overuse, irritation, or infection. As a result of the vocal cords swelling, your voice will sound very hoarse or even undetectable. Most cases of laryngitis are triggered by a temporary viral infection or vocal strain, but if symptoms last longer than a few weeks it could be a sign of a more serious cause.
Acute cases of laryngitis can be managed by resting your voice and drinking plenty of fluids. If your symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, you have trouble breathing, or the pain intensifies, seek medical attention as you may have developed chronic laryngitis.
Vocal Cord Paralysis
A more serious vocal cord injury is vocal cord paralysis, the inability to move the muscles that control the vocal cords. One or both vocal cords can be paralyzed as the result of a brain disorder, nerve damage, neck injury, viral infection of the nerves, Lyme disease, or certain surgeries.
When the vocal cords are paralyzed, your speaking, breathing, and swallowing abilities are affected. Voice changes vary depending on whether one or both cords are paralyzed. When one cord is paralyzed the voice is harsh and breathy. When both are paralyzed, the voice is reduced in strength but otherwise sounds normal. However, breathing will be difficult during exercise; a harsh, high-pitched sound will result from each breath.
If you suffer from any of these vocal cord injuries, you know how frustrating it can be to lose your voice or have pain in your throat. If your symptoms have just begun, save a trip to the doctor and try these at-home remedies first:
- Rest your voice
- Gargle warm saltwater
- Turn on the humidifier
- Try natural, soothing throat lozenges
- Add apple cider vinegar to your water
- Drink warm tea with lemon and honey
- Include ginger root and fresh garlic to your meals or teas
- Use eucalyptus oil in an aromatherapy diffuser
- Drink plenty of fluids
These remedies can soothe your throat and vocal cords and relieve whatever is causing your symptoms. If your condition does not improve or if it worsens after a few weeks, a professional medical exam may be necessary. Dr. Dispasquale at Vitale ENT can provide you with a diagnosis and a variety of treatment options. Call (813) 336-2862 or make an appointment online!