Our voices, as unique as they are, all start from the same basic system. Two vocal cords lie within the voicebox, or larynx. They vibrate against each other on the body’s command. The result? The sounds of speech. But the vocal system doesn’t always work smoothly, and in rare cases, one or both of the vocal cords can become paralyzed. For people with vocal cord paralysis, also known as vocal cord palsy, speaking is anything but easy.
First, let’s identify the symptoms of vocal cord paralysis. Telltale signs can include:
- trouble speaking loudly
- difficulty talking for more than a second or so
- coughing or choking during meals (because swallowing can become difficult)
As for the cause, that’s a bit more complicated. Vocal cord paralysis starts when the nerve impulses to the voicebox are disrupted. That can happen because of viral infections (the most common cause), injuries from surgery, strokes and, in some instances, tumors of the chest or neck.
It can be tricky for doctors to discover the exact cause of vocal cord paralysis, so the key is speaking to your physician early on. Work with a doc who’ll listen to you. Because the causes can be so diverse, even small details, which you might think are insignificant, can help lead to answers.
People with vocal cord paralysis have several treatment options, depending on how long the symptoms have lasted and how severe they are. Voice therapy (focusing on controlling the breath and relieving tension) can help in some cases, as long as the voice isn’t too weak or breathy.
For more intense cases, surgery can help bring the paralyzed vocal cord (or cords) closer to the center of the voicebox. This can be done with implants or by injecting a substance that helps bulk the cords. In another type of surgery, docs can take a healthy nerve from the neck and use it to replace the damaged nerve controlling the voicebox.
From our own Dr. Robert Pincus:
“We find that the vast majority of people with vocal cord paralysis can expect to have a return of their vocal quality, either because it has resolved, through speech therapy, or least often through one of several minor procedures on the vocal cord.”
Need some good news? Although it’s not true of every case, vocal cord paralysis sometimes clears up on its own. That’s yet another reason it’s critical to talk to a doctor right when the symptoms start. Keep the communication open, so you can decide when — and how — to take action in a way that suits your symptoms and your lifestyle. When you have questions, we’ll be here.