At some point in your life, you’ve likely experienced some dysphonia. Dysphonia, in its simplest terms, is a change in your voice, usually characterized as hoarseness. It’s common to experience hoarseness when you have a cold or when you overwork your vocal cords. In these cases, the dysphonia will go away on its own in time.
However, when there is no apparent cause for your dysphonia, or it doesn’t go away, there may be a reason for concern. If your dysphonia comes on unexpectedly or persists for more than a few weeks, contact an ENT specialist right away.
What Is Dysphonia?
As we mentioned, dysphonia is a change in the voice. But what does that mean? While the voice often sounds “hoarse,” dysphonia can also include a voice that is airy, raspy, or pitchy. Generally, there are two types of dysphonia, traditional dysphonia, and spasmodic dysphonia. The former typically presents with physical symptoms, which may include polyps, lesions, or cancer. The latter has no physical presence and is considered a neurological disorder. These cases will often be referred to as a speech pathologist or voice specialist.
There is no known cause for spasmodic dysphonia. A person suffering from spasmodic dysphonia will experience frequent spasms of the vocal folds. This will cause the voice to crack or go coarse while the person is trying to speak. Diagnosis of spasmodic dysphonia is made through a combination of a physical exam and a patient history. The diagnosis is often made by both an ENT specialist and a speech pathologist.
A variety of physical ailments causes traditional dysphonia. When you see an ear, nose, and throat doctor, the physician will do a physical exam. They will check the airway for anything that may be interfering with your ability to speak. They will also take a health history to determine if your medical history or habits could be causing your dysphonia. Behavioral issues of note include:
- Strenuous vocal activity (including singing)
The physical exam will determine if any physical obstructions can cause problems with your voice. Your doctor will examine your ear, nose, and throat. The examination will include a laryngoscopy and may include a video scope. The cause of your dysphonia will determine the course of treatment. Possible explanations for dysphonia include:
- GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease)
One of the most common reasons for hoarseness is overuse. This usually results in polyps or nodules appearing on the vocal cords. Just like anything that you overwork, the muscles in your throat can develop calluses. These can interfere with your vocal cords’ ability to send vibrations and change the sound of your voice. Nodules respond well to voice therapy.
Voice therapy is also the treatment of choice for spasmodic dysphonia. Because there is no cure for spasmodic dysphonia, your doctor can only help alleviate the symptoms. This may include voice training or determining whether there are any specific triggers.
Vocal changes may be the result of environmental figures. Smoke, acid, and other toxins can irritate your vocal folds and cause them to become inflamed. If your dysphonia is the result of smoking or GERD, your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes before any surgical interventions. These changes may include:
- Quit smoking
- Eliminate or reduce acidic foods in your diet
- Eliminate alcohol
- Eat slowly
- Stop eating two to three hours before bed
In some cases, your voice issues may be the result of polyps or throat cancer. In this case, the treatment will be slightly more invasive. Polyps are typically removed with a microscopic surgery. This is usually an outpatient procedure. The operation is relatively short, and you should be able to go home a few hours after the surgery is complete.
After your surgery, your doctor will recommend that you allow your throat to heal. This will include many of the lifestyle changes listed above. Most importantly, you will want to get rest and avoid anything that may irritate your throat.
Not all cases of dysphonia are preventable, but many are. The throat is sensitive and will let you know when it is irritated. You have likely experienced changes in your voice when you have been exposed to smoke, have allergies, or have a bad cold. Some of the steps you can take to prevent dysphonia include:
Don’t smoke: Smoking leads to many health issues. When you smoke, the smoke irritates your vocal cords and causes inflammation. This alone can cause changes in voice. Long term smoking can lead to throat cancer, which will result in tumors or lesions that can make it difficult to talk.
Take it easy on acidic and spicy foods: You’ve probably noticed that certain foods irritate your throat. Your throat may hurt, or you may experience reflux. Excessive reflux can irritate your throat and cause polyps. You don’t have to eliminate spicy foods, but you don’t want to go crazy with them either. It’s also a good idea to limit alcohol and caffeine.
Get enough rest: Professionals that rely on their voice often push their vocal cords beyond the limits. If you are a singer or work in a profession that requires heavy use of your voice, be sure to get enough rest. You’ll notice the signs of when you are pushing too hard. Your throat will begin to hurt, and it will take more effort to get your voice to sound the way it should. When this happens, take a break and allow your voice to rest.
Contact an ENT Specialist for Help
Our voice is important. We rely on it as our primary mode of communication. You must take steps to stay healthy and monitor your health. Minor and short term changes to your voice are normal. Sudden changes or changes that last more than three weeks are not. If you are experiencing hoarseness or other voice issues, contact CV/ENT Surgical Group today to set up an appointment.