Most changes in the voice result from a medical disorder. Failure to seek a physician’s care can lead to hoarseness and more serious problems.
What is Laryngitis?
Laryngitis is a swelling of the vocal cords usually due to an infection. A viral infection (a “cold”) of the upper respiratory track is the most common cause for infection of the voice box. When the vocal cords swell in size, they vibrate differently, leading to hoarseness. The best treatment for this condition is to rest or reduce your voice use and stay well hydrated. Since most of these infections are caused by a virus, antibiotics are not effective. It is important to be cautious with your voice during an episode of laryngitis, because the swelling of the vocal cords increases the risk for serious injury such as blood in the vocal cords or formation of vocal cord nodules, polyp, or cysts.
Vocal Cord Lesions
Benign noncancerous growths on the vocal cords are caused by voice misuse or overuse and from trauma or injury to the vocal cords. These lesions (“bumps”) on the vocal cord(s) alter vocal cord vibration. This abnormal vibration results in hoarseness and a chronic change in one’s voice quality, including roughness, raspiness, and an increased effort to talk.
The most common vocal cord lesions include vocal nodules also known as “singer’s nodes” or “nodes” which are similar to “calluses” of the vocal cords. They typically occur on both vocal cords opposite each other. These lesions are usually treated with voice rest and speech therapy (to improve the speaking technique thus removing the trauma on the vocal cords). Vocal cord polyp(s) or cyst(s) are other common vocal cord lesions caused by misuse, overuse, or trauma to the vocal cords and frequently require surgical removal after all nonsurgical treatment options (i.e., speech therapy) have failed.
Gastroesophageal & Laryngopharyngeal Reflux Disease
Reflux (backflow of gastric contents) into the throat of stomach acid can cause a variety of symptoms in the esophagus (swallowing tube) as well as in the throat. Hoarseness (chronic or intermittent), swallowing problems, a foreign body sensation, or throat pain are common symptoms of gastric acid irritation of the throat, called laryngopharyngeal reflux disease (LPRD). LPRD is difficult to diagnose because approximately half of the patients with this disorder have no heartburn symptoms which traditionally accompany gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Your gastric acid can flow up to the throat at any time. The at-night aspect of LPRD is thought to be the hardest to diagnose because there are usually no specific symptoms while the reflux occurs. Consequently, patients will awake with throat irritation, hoarseness, and throat discomfort without knowing the cause. An examination of the throat by one of our ENT physicians will determine if stomach acid is causing irritation of the throat and voice box.
Poor Speaking Technique
Improper or poor speaking technique is caused from speaking at an abnormally or uncomfortable pitch, either too high or too low, and leads to hoarseness and a variety of other voice problems. Examples of this condition are when young adult females, in a work environment, consciously or subconsciously choose to speak at a lower than appropriate pitch and with a heavy voice. Percussive speaking, a voice too loud or focusing on the first syllable of each word, is another improper speaking technique that may result in injury or trauma to the vocal cords and muscles causing “vocal fatigue”.
Other factors leading to improper speaking technique include insufficient or improper breathing while talking, specifically breathing from the shoulders or neck area instead of from the lower chest or abdominal area. The consequence of this practice is increased tension in the throat and neck muscles, which can cause hoarseness and a variety of symptoms, especially pain and fatigue associated with talking. Voice problems can also occur from using your voice in an unnatural position, such as talking on the phone cradled to your shoulder. This requires excessive tension in the neck and laryngeal muscles, which changes the speaking technique and may result in a voice problem.
Vocal Cord Paralysis
Hoarseness and other problems can occur related to problems between the nerves and muscles within the voice box or larynx. The most common condition is a paralysis or weakness of one or both vocal cords. Involvement of both vocal cords is rare and is usually manifested by noisy breathing or difficulty getting enough air while breathing or talking. However, one vocal cord can become paralyzed or severely weakened (paresis) after a viral infection of the throat, after surgery in the neck or cheek, or for unknown reasons.
The immobile or paralyzed vocal cord typically causes a soft, breathy, weak voice due to poor vocal cord closure. Most paralyzed vocal cords will recover on their own within several months. There is a possibility that the paralysis may become permanent, which may require surgical treatment. Surgery for unilateral vocal cord paralysis involves positioning of the vocal cord to improve the vibration of the paralyzed vocal cord with the non-paralyzed vocal cord. There are a variety of surgical techniques used to reposition the vocal cord. Sometimes speech therapy may be used before or after surgical treatment of the paralyzed vocal cords or sometimes as the sole treatment. Treatment choices depend on the nature of the vocal cord paralysis as well as the patient’s voice demands.
Throat cancer is a very serious condition requiring immediate medical attention. When cancer attacks the vocal cords, the voice changes in quality, assuming the characteristics of chronic hoarseness, roughness, or raspiness. These symptoms occur at an early stage in the development of the cancer. It is important to remember that prompt attention to changes in the voice facilitate early diagnosis, thus early and successful treatment of vocal cord cancer can be obtained.
Persistent hoarseness or change in the voice for longer than two to four weeks in a smoker should prompt evaluation by one of our ENT physicians to determine if there is cancer of the larynx (voice box). Different treatment options for this cancer of the voice box include surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy. When vocal cord cancer is found early, typically only surgery or radiation therapy is required, and the cure rate is high (greater than 90 percent).
Hoarseness or roughness in your voice is often caused by a medical problem. Contact one of our ENT physicians if you have any sustained changes to your voice.
Difficulty in swallowing (dysphagia) is common among all age groups, especially the elderly. The term dysphagia refers to the feeling of difficulty passing food or liquid from the mouth to the stomach. This may be caused by many factors, most of which are temporary and not threatening. Difficulties in swallowing rarely represent a more serious disease, such as a tumor or a progressive neurological disorder. When the difficulty does not clear up by itself in a short period of time, you should see one of our ENT physicians.
How do we swallow?
People normally swallow hundreds of times a day to eat solids, drink liquids, and swallow the normal saliva and mucus that the body produces.
The process of swallowing has four related stages:
- The first stage is the oral preparation stage, where food or liquid is manipulated and chewed in preparation for swallowing.
- The second stage is the oral stage, where the tongue propels the food or liquid to the back of the mouth, starting the swallowing response.
- The third stage is the pharyngeal stage which begins as food or liquid is quickly passed through the pharynx, the region of the throat which connects the mouth with the esophagus, then into the esophagus or swallowing tube.
- In the final, esophageal stage, the food or liquid passes through the esophagus into the stomach.
Although the first and second stages have some voluntary control, stages three and four occur involuntarily, without conscious input.
Swallowing disorder symptoms
Symptoms of swallowing disorders may include:
- A feeling that food or liquid is sticking in the throat.
- Discomfort in the throat or chest (when gastro esophageal reflux is present).
- A sensation of a foreign body or “lump” in the throat.
- Weight loss and inadequate nutrition due to prolonged or more significant problems with swallowing.
- Coughing or choking caused by bits of food, liquid, or saliva not passing easily during swallowing and being sucked into the lungs.
- Voice change.
How are swallowing disorders diagnosed?
When dysphagia is persistent and the cause is not apparent, our ENT physician will discuss the history of your problem and examine your mouth and throat. This may be done with the aid of mirrors. Sometimes a small tube (flexible laryngoscope) is placed through the nose and the patient is then given food to eat while the scope is in place in the throat. These procedures provide visualization of the back of the tongue, throat, and larynx (voice box). These procedures are called FEES (Fiber optic Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing) or FEESST (Flexible Endoscopic Evaluation of Swallowing with Sensory Testing). If necessary, an examination of the esophagus, named TransNasal Esophagoscopy (TNE), may be carried out by one of our ENT doctors. If you experience difficulty swallowing, it is important to seek treatment to avoid malnutrition and dehydration.
Swallowing disorder treatment
Many of these disorders can be treated with medication. Drugs that slow stomach acid production, muscle relaxants, and antacids are a few of the many medicines available. Treatment is tailored to the particular cause of the swallowing disorder.
Gastro esophageal reflux can often be treated by changing eating and living habits in these ways:
- Eat a bland diet with smaller, more frequent meals.
- Eliminate tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine.
- Reduce weight and stress.
- Avoid food within two hours of bedtime.
- Elevate the head of the bed at night.
If these don’t help, antacids between meals and at bedtime may provide relief.
Many swallowing disorders may be helped by direct swallowing therapy. A speech pathologist can provide special exercises for coordinating the swallowing muscles or stimulating the nerves that trigger the swallow reflex. Patients may also be taught simple ways to place food in the mouth or position the body and head to help the swallow occur successfully.
Some patients with swallowing disorders have difficulty feeding themselves. An occupational therapist or a speech language pathologist can aid the patient and family in feeding techniques. These techniques make the patient as independent as possible. A dietician or nutritional expert can determine the amount of food or liquid necessary to sustain an individual and whether supplements are necessary.
Once the cause is determined, swallowing disorders may be treated with:
- Swallowing therapy
Surgery is used to treat certain problems. If a narrowing exists in the throat or esophagus, the area may need to be stretched or dilated. If a muscle is too tight, it may need to be dilated or released surgically. This procedure is called a myotomy and can be performed by one of our ENT physicians.
Many diseases contribute to swallowing disorders. If you have a persistent problem swallowing, please make an appointment with one of our ENT doctors.
Swallowing disorder causes
Any interruption in the swallowing process can cause difficulties. Eating slowly and chewing thoroughly can help reduce problems with swallowing. However, difficulties may be due to a range of other causes, including something as simple as poor teeth, ill fitting dentures, or a common cold. One of the most common causes of dysphagia is gastro esophageal reflux. This occurs when stomach acid moves up the esophagus to the pharynx, causing discomfort. Other causes may include: hypertension; diabetes; thyroid disease; stroke; progressive neurologic disorder; the presence of a tracheotomy tube; a paralyzed or unmoving vocal cord; a tumor in the mouth, throat, or esophagus; or surgery in the head, neck, or esophageal areas.
Swallowing difficulty can also be connected to some medications including:
- Anticholinergic agents found in certain anti-depressants and allergy medications.
- Calcium tablets.
- Calcium channel blockers.
- Iron tablets.
- Vitamin C.
- Tetracycline (used to treat acne).