Taking care of your vocal cords with utmost importance is part of a professional singer’s lifestyle. The last thing you want to happen to you is vocal cord paralysis. There are three reasons you’re here:
- You think you have it.
- You already have it.
- You don’t know what it is.
If you have number two for your reason, don’t stay here anymore and schedule an appointment with your physician. I’m no doctor, but I’ve been with singers who experienced it. All my life I’ve been afraid to have a problem like this. If you have reason one and two, then continue on reading to be informed.
Vocal Cord Paralysis
It’s understandable to be wary of vocal cord paralysis. After all, it isn’t as simple as breaking a string in a guitar. But before anything else, what is it exactly?
As its name implies, it is an ailment wherein you won’t be able to move your vocal cords. The main reason this happens is that the nerves connected to it have been disrupted. There are four things to worry about when you experience this:
- Loss of speech
- Inability to sing
- Breathing difficulty
The disruption of the nerves can be caused by the following:
- Infection (viral or bacterial)
- Physical trauma
Remember that the vocal cord is mainly composed of two muscle bands. They are thin, flexible, and sensitive. They are located at the entrance of your trachea or windpipe. Their primary function is to create sound when air passes through the trachea.
As air passes by, the folds vibrate, which results in sound. It’s just like when you blow on a flute or recorder, the air you exhale through a sharp slit, where the music from the instrument comes or is generated from.
Most of the time, when you’re not speaking or singing, the vocal folds are in a relaxed position. It is positioned that way to allow air to pass in and out for you to be able to breathe. When paralyzed, it stays that way, making it unable to move and vibrate to produce sounds if you want to speak or sing.
Paralysis often happens with one of the folds most of the time. This allows partial speech, but it can prove challenging to do so. Having both cords affected can be a medical emergency situation. This condition is called UVCP or unilateral vocal cord paralysis.
Do You Have It?
This ailment mostly affects singers gradually. Noticeable symptoms, which are often neglected by people, appear first before it becomes a serious concern. Some of those symptoms are:
- Weak coughs, either intended or reflex
- Often clearing your throat
- Difficulty or inability to loudly speak
- Struggle with hitting the correct pitch
- Hoarseness and airy breathing, speaking and singing
- Frequent choking when swallowing and drinking
As a singer, your symptoms can quickly get worse as you perform and practice. Your vocal folds may endure it for at least two weeks before everything gets worse. Immediately check with your doctor if you feel like the symptoms are not getting better within a week.
Half of the cases recorded are often labeled as idiopathic. These patients don’t have an exact recollection of why they experienced VCP. It just happens. Doctors tend to chalk this to frequent colds or excessive usage of the vocal cords (extreme vocal training and singing).
The other half are caused by a multitude of problems. Some of them are:
- Intubation accidents
- Surgery complications
Diagnosis and Cure
The doctor you’ll look for to get checked is an ENT (ears, nose, throat) specialist. They often perform four tests to confirm if you have VCP. They may:
- Check your throat using a camera inside a tube that will be inserted to your throat (flexible laryngoscopy)
- Check the nerve connections through laryngeal electromyography (LEMG)
- Perform a CT scan for potential tumors
- Do some blood work to check for auto-immune diseases or potential viral infections.
Depending on the cause of your ailment, the treatment may vary. Most often than not, vocal cord paralysis is a secondary ailment, and treatment often targets the underlying issues (tumors, disease, etcetera). After the underlying condition is treated, surgery is usually followed to fix the paralyzed cords. After recovery, the patient will undergo voice therapy to regain the ability to speak, sing, and eat normally.
Additional surgery may be needed if the initial treatment doesn’t fix the problem. They may either:
- Add more mass to your vocal folds through injections or surgically placed implants.
- Reposition your vocal folds.
- Reinnervate or relocate some nerves into your vocal cord
- If worst comes to worst, they may perform a tracheotomy, which is only achieved when your breathing’s terrible, and you can’t eat or drink regularly anymore.
The last thing you want to happen as a singer is to lose your voice. Note that most doctors who handled singers with VCP often doom their patients by saying they can’t sing anymore. In most cases, it’s true. But some singers do recover and get back to performing, like this girl: Mormon Singer Overcomes Vocal Cord Paralysis.
The moment you realize that you may have this ailment, act immediately and locate the nearest ENT in your area. They are few in numbers, especially the ones who frequently deal with VCP. Stop practicing and start trying to recover.
I swear that we are blessed with the gift of singing. And I tell you this upfront, our vocal folds are among the most resilient organs in the body. It can handle a lot of abuse, and it can recover by itself without you purposely doing so.
However, when it’s gone, it can be permanently gone. I had an acquaintance years ago who lost his voice from VCP. The saddest thing about it is that he’s just starting to learn how. He was asking me for advice from time to time, and the next time we met, I was surprised by the massive change in his voice. I heard the news directly from his wheezing mouth. His doctor advised that he can still sing, but he can forget about going pro.
Anyway, I hope you don’t have this malady. You can check out my article on it if you want to take great care and know your vocal cords more intimately. On the other hand, I recommend that you take some vocal lessons to learn how to take care of your voice and throat.