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Vocal Cord Dysfunction

The Voice Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center combines the expertise of fellowship-trained laryngologists, speech-language pathologists, and other voice specialists. Our team provides accurate diagnosis and effective treatment for vocal cord dysfunction, a breathing problem that can resemble asthma or anaphylaxis.

Comprehensive Treatment for Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction (VCD), also called paradoxical vocal fold movement, causes the vocal cords to fully or partially close while breathing in. The vocal cords are inside the larynx (voice box) in the throat, and they normally open during breathing to allow air to pass in and out of the lungs.

VCD makes breathing and speaking difficult, and it is often confused with asthma because the two conditions have similar symptoms. Some people have both conditions.

Our multidisciplinary team is at the forefront of the latest research investigating improved diagnostic methods and treatments for all types of voice disorders. We’re dedicated to exceptional patient care that translates research findings into better outcomes for our patients.

Causes of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Although the causes of VCD are not always found, there are several possible triggers, such as:

  • Exercise
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Irritants such as strong odors or fumes
  • Postnasal drip
  • Stress
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Upper respiratory infection, such as a cold

Symptoms of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

VCD can occur suddenly and be either mild or severe. Unlike asthma, VCD usually causes more trouble when a person is inhaling than when exhaling. Some common symptoms include:

  • Chronic cough or throat clearing
  • Feeling of choking or suffocation
  • Hoarseness
  • Noise while breathing, such as gasping or stridor
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty getting air into the lungs
  • Tightness in the throat or chest

Diagnosis of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

At UT Southwestern, our experienced laryngologists perform a thorough evaluation, which includes a:

  • Physical exam, with an inspection of the vocal cords
  • Review of medical history
  • Discussion of symptoms

Depending on each patient’s specific needs, we sometimes work with pulmonologists (lung specialists) to confirm a diagnosis. Tests that we commonly use include:

  • Laryngoscopy: Observation of vocal cord movement using a laryngoscope, a narrow, flexible tube with a light and camera, passed through the nose
  •  Lung function tests: Noninvasive tests that assess how well air moves in and out of the lungs and can show a blockage if done during a VCD episode

Treatment for Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Speech therapy is the first line of treatment for vocal cord dysfunction. Our speech-language pathologists teach patients techniques to open the throat to help the vocal cords move normally. Other treatment recommendations include:

  • Smoking cessation, if needed
  • Stress reduction, such as psychotherapy, meditation, and biofeedback, to avoid triggering VCD
  • Treatment for underlying causes, such as GERD and asthma

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