Voice disorders

Overview

People develop voice problems for many reasons. Doctors who specialize in ear, nose and throat disorders and speech-language pathologists are involved in diagnosing and treating voice disorders.

Treatment depends on what’s causing your voice disorder, but may include voice therapy, medication, injections or surgery.

Diagnosis

Your doctor will ask you detailed questions about your voice problems and examine you thoroughly. A topical anesthetic may be applied to numb your tissues before your doctor uses one of the following tools to examine your vocal cords:

  1. Mirror. Similar to a dental mirror, a long, rigid instrument with an angled mirror is inserted into your mouth.
  2. Flexible laryngoscope. A flexible tube containing a light and camera is inserted through your nose.
  3. Rigid laryngoscope. A rigid viewing tube is inserted through your mouth.
  4. Videostroboscope. A camera is combined with a flashing light to provide a slow-motion view of your vocal cords as they move.

Additional tests are sometimes used:

  1. Sound (acoustic) analysis. Using computer analysis, your doctor can measure irregularities in the sound produced by the vocal cords.
  2. Laryngeal electromyography. Small needles are inserted through the skin to measure the electric currents in your voice box muscles.

Treatment

Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor will recommend one or more treatments:

    1. Rest, liquids and voice therapy. Like any other part of the body, the vocal cords need regular rest and fluids. Speech pathology specialists can teach you how to use your voice more efficiently through voice therapy, how to properly clear your throat and how much liquid to drink.
    2. Allergy treatments. If an allergy is creating too much mucus in your throat, your doctor or an allergy specialist can identify the allergy’s cause and provide treatment.
    3. Smoking cessation. If your voice problem is the result of smoking, quitting smoking can help improve your voice along with many other areas of your health, such as boosting your heart health and lowering your cancer risk.
    4. Medications. Several medications are available for treating voice disorders. Depending on the cause of your voice disorder, you may need medication to reduce inflammation, treat gastroesophageal reflux or prevent blood vessel regrowth. Medications can be taken orally, injected into the vocal cords or applied topically during surgery.

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Causes

Your voice box (larynx) is made of cartilage, muscle and mucous membranes located at the top of your windpipe (trachea) and the base of your tongue. Sound is created when your vocal cords vibrate.

This vibration comes from air moving through the larynx, bringing your vocal cords closer together. Your vocal cords also help close your voice box when you swallow, preventing you from inhaling food or liquid.

If your vocal cords become inflamed, develop growths or become paralyzed, they can’t work properly, and you may develop a voice disorder.