3 signs your vocal cords may be damaged


Dr. Lesley Childs uses a model to show where the vocal cords are located within the larynx.

Everyone at one time or another loses their voice or experiences hoarseness – such as when we have a bad cold, or the morning after singing at a loud concert, or cheering at a sports event.

While these conditions can temporarily damage our vocal cords, with a little care – such as vocal rest and good hydration – we should recover fairly quickly.

Sometimes, though, vocal problems persist, and that’s when you need to take action to avoid long-term or permanent damage. Here are three signs you should seek voice care.

1. Two weeks of persistent hoarseness or voice change

Hoarseness is a general term that can encompass a wide range of sounds, such as a raspy or breathy voice. While hoarseness often is caused by a cold or extended periods of talking or yelling, it also can be a symptom of a more serious condition such as a growth on the vocal cords, including polyps or cysts.

Many of these growths often can be treated through voice therapy, although surgery may be required. As with most medical conditions, early detection is key. If you experience a voice change such as hoarseness for two weeks or more, make an appointment to see a laryngologist. A laryngologist is an Otolaryngologist (ENT) who specializes in the vocal cords and care of the voice.

COVID-19 can put your voice (and life) at risk

Another potential complication from the novel coronavirus is damage to your vocal folds and airway from extended periods spent on a ventilator. Dr. Lesley Childs discusses the risks and the potential treatments for vocal scarring.

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2. Chronic vocal fatigue

Vocal fatigue can result from overuse of the voice. We often see this in professional voice users – such as teachers, singers, and call center employees.

Just like your legs can get tired from running, your voice can get tired when you use it for a long time. Our voice therapists recommend that for every 60 minutes of voice use, you need 10 minutes of voice rest. Overuse can damage the vocal cords, and if you often find you have lost your voice by the end of the day or after an hour of singing, your vocal cords may be experiencing tissue damage.

A laryngologist will examine your vocal cords for growths or other conditions and may recommend voice therapy to learn techniques that reduce the stress on your vocal cords, and hopefully help to reverse any tissue damage. These therapy techniques focus on the fundamentals of voice production and re-balancing the vocal subsystems. Therapy is individualized to each voice user and his/her vocal demands.

Vocal overuse and abuse

Dr. Lesley Childs, a voice care specialist at UT Southwestern and a former professional singer, explains some of the ways we misuse and abuse our vocal cords. 

3. Throat pain or discomfort with voice use

If you feel like you have to exert a great deal of energy to produce your voice, that’s not normal.

During normal vocalization, only the vocal cords should move. However, sometimes we use the muscles in our neck to help produce sound, leading to muscle strain. You may not be able to see this in a mirror, but through a laryngoscopy, we can see the muscles on the inside of your throat straining when you speak or sing.

Again, voice therapy will help you learn how to relax these muscles during vocalization.

What to expect during a vocal care appointment

If you’re a professional voice user, we may recommend that you schedule a joint clinic appointment, which means that you will see a laryngologist and a voice therapist at the same time. We will take your medical history, perform an exam, including laryngeal videostroboscopy so that your vocal cords can be viewed while you are producing various sounds, and begin working with you on vocal exercises.

Voice therapy usually consists of one 45 minute-long session per week for four to six weeks. After just a few sessions, you should feel like you are producing sound in a more efficient, healthy way, but translating those skills into daily conversation takes practice and repetition. Stick with it, and your voice will thank you.

If you are experiencing chronic hoarseness, vocal fatigue, or pain while producing sound, request an appointment with a laryngologist or call 214-645-8898.

UTSW Voice Care Center

The Voice Center at UT Southwestern provides state-of-the-art care for patients with voice disorders and other conditions affecting the larynx (voice box), airways, and swallowing function. Patients include professionals who rely on their voices – singers, actors, public speakers, broadcasters, lawyers, clergy, and teachers – as well as seniors or anyone experiencing vocal problems.

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