Vocal cord paralysis
Vocal cord paralysis
Vocal cord paralysis occurs when the nerve impulses to your voice box (larynx) are interrupted. This results in paralysis of the muscle of the vocal cords. Vocal cord paralysis can affect your ability to speak and even breathe. That's because your vocal cords, sometimes called vocal folds, do more than just produce sound. They also protect your airway by preventing food, drink and even your saliva from entering your windpipe (trachea) and causing you to choke.
There are a number of causes of vocal cord paralysis including damage to nerves during surgery and certain cancers. Vocal cord paralysis can also be caused by a viral infection or a neurological disorder.
Treatment for vocal cord paralysis usually includes voice therapy; however, surgery is also sometimes necessary.
Your vocal cords are two flexible bands of muscle tissue that sit at the entrance to the windpipe (trachea). When you speak, the bands come together and vibrate to make sound. The rest of the time, the vocal cords are relaxed in an open position, so you can breathe.
In most cases of vocal cord paralysis, only one vocal cord is paralyzed. If both of your vocal cords are affected, you may have vocal difficulties, as well as significant problems with breathing and swallowing.
Signs and symptoms of vocal cord paralysis may include:
When to see a doctor
How speech occurs
Speech occurs when air flows from the lungs, up the windpipe (trachea) and through the voice box (larynx). This causes the vocal cords to vibrate, creating sound. Sound is shaped into words by the ...
Vocal cords open and closed
In vocal cord paralysis, the nerve impulses to your voice box (larynx) are disrupted, resulting in paralysis of the muscle. Doctors often don't know the cause of vocal cord paralysis. Known causes may include:
Factors that may increase your risk of developing vocal cord paralysis include:
Breathing problems associated with vocal cord paralysis may be so mild that you just have a hoarse-sounding voice, or they can be so serious that they're life-threatening. Because vocal cord paralysis keeps the opening to the airway from completely opening or closing, other complications may include choking on or actually inhaling (aspirating) food or liquid. Aspiration that leads to severe pneumonia is very serious and requires immediate medical care.
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to first see your primary care doctor unless both vocal cords are paralyzed. In that case, you'll probably first be seen in a hospital emergency department.
After the initial assessment, you'll likely be referred to a doctor who specializes in ear, nose and throat disorders. You may also be referred to a doctor who treats disorders of nerves (neurologist) and a speech-language pathologist for voice assessment and therapy.
It's helpful to arrive well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor may be limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. For vocal cord paralysis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask any additional questions that occur to you during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and lifestyle, listen to your voice, and ask you how long you've had voice problems. To further evaluate your voice problems, the following tests may be performed:
Treatments and drugs
Treatment of vocal cord paralysis depends on the cause, the severity of symptoms and the time from the onset of symptoms. Treatment may include voice therapy, bulk injections, surgery or a combination of treatments. In some instances, you may get better without surgical treatment. For this reason, your doctor may delay permanent surgery for six months to a year from the beginning of your vocal cord paralysis. Bulk injections using collagen-like substances are often done within the first month of voice loss, however. During the waiting period for surgery, your doctor may suggest voice therapy to help keep you from using your voice improperly while the nerves heal.
Coping and support
Vocal cord paralysis can be frustrating and sometimes debilitating, especially because your voice affects your ability to communicate. A speech therapist can help you develop the skills you need to communicate. Even if you're not able to regain the voice you once had, speech therapy can help you learn effective ways to compensate. In addition, a speech-language pathologist can teach you efficient ways to use your voice without causing further damage to the vocal mechanism.
Last Updated: 2012-06-15
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