Don’t Let Voice Disorder Leave You Speechless

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By Minal Kadam, MA, CCC-SLP

Expressing yourself in words is an important part of daily life.

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Your voice is a critical means of communication and a vital instrument that reflects your personality, emotions and well-being.

And when it’s not working correctly, it can literally leave you, well, speechless.

At Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center (PMC) Princeton Rehabilitation, specially trained speech language pathologists offer individualized treatment for patients with voice disorders.

About Voice Disorders

Voice disorders are prevalent in the United States, with an estimated 1 out of every 13 adults experiencing a voice problem annually, according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association.

A voice disorder refers to any condition that affects the quality, pitch, volume or resonance of a person’s voice.  Common causes of voice disorders include:

  • Vocal nodules or polyps, which are growths on the vocal cords.  
  • Laryngitis or inflammation of the vocal cords.
  • Vocal cord paralysis or paresis, a condition in which one or both vocal cords cannot move properly.
  • Excessive tension in the muscles around the larynx (voice box).

Risk Factors

Voice disorders can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or occupation. However, certain factors may increase the likelihood of developing voice disorders. These include:

  • Professionals who rely heavily on their voices, such as teachers, medical professionals and those who are on the phone or video calls throughout the day. In fact, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, teachers are estimated to be two to three times more likely than the general population to develop a voice disorder.
  • Certain medical conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, allergies, asthma or neurological disorders.
  • Smoking.
  • Excessive throat clearing, yelling, or speaking loudly in noisy environments.
  • Severe illness.
  • Trauma to the vocal cords, including surgeries.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a voice disorder can vary depending on the specific type and underlying cause, but common signs and symptoms include:

  • Hoarseness. A rough, raspy, or strained voice quality that may make it difficult to produce clear speech sounds.
  • Voice fatigue. Feeling tired or strained after speaking for a short period or experiencing a decrease in voice quality with prolonged use.
  • Pitch changes. Unexpected changes in the pitch or range of the voice, such as sudden breaks or fluctuations.
  • Breathiness. A lack of clarity or control over the flow of air through the vocal cords, resulting in a weak or airy voice quality.
  • Loss of voice. Partial or complete loss of the ability to produce sound.
  • Difficulty speaking loudly or softly or projecting.
  • Voice tremors. Involuntary shaking or trembling of the voice, particularly noticeable during sustained sounds or speech.

Speech Language Pathologists Can Help

If you experience persistent or concerning changes in your voice, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional, such as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) or a speech language pathologist, for evaluation and appropriate treatment. 

Speech language pathologists at Princeton Rehabilitation are specially trained to teach healthy voice use.

They do this through teaching vocal hygiene, stretches, breathing techniques, and massages to relax and heal your larynx. They also help your voice function in a safe way by teaching you to project without straining.

Tips to Reduce Voice Strain

While some factors contributing to voice disorders are beyond your control, you can reduce voice strain with these easy tips:

  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep vocal cords lubricated.
  • Practice good vocal hygiene. Avoid yelling, speaking loudly in noisy environments and excessive throat clearing.
  • Avoid exposure to tobacco smoke, pollutants, and allergens.
  • Rest your voice on your days off.
  • Use nonverbal communication when your voice feels strained.
  • Use text to communicate instead of a phone call.
  • Stretch and massage your larynx to release muscle tension.

To massage your larynx, start making small circles with your fingers along the outside of your voice box and pull down slowly on both sides. When you reach the bottom of your throat, start back up at the top. One pass is equal to the entire length of your neck. Massage for two minutes or not fewer than 10 passes, at least 10 times a day.

By adopting healthy practices and seeking prompt treatment for any voice-related concerns, you can keep your voice strong so you can use it for years to come.

To learn more or to make an appointment with a speech pathologist affiliated with Princeton Rehabilitation, call (609) 853-7830.

Minal Kadam, MA, CCC-SLP, is a speech language pathologist with Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center Princeton Rehabilitation.

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