Our voice is the instrument we use to communicate on a daily basis and for this reason it should be used correctly. If we do so, we lessen the risk of straining our vocal cords.
Ø Which are the signs or symptoms of a voice disorder?
Aphonia refers to the loss of voice
Dysphonia is characterized by altered vocal quality, pitch or volume.
Based on the type of dysphonia and its causes, different symptoms can be observed:
- Discomfort when speaking
- Decreased vocal endurance or fatigue
- Dryness, itching or an irritated throat
- Frequent coughing or throat clearing
- Decreased breath support or running out of breath during speech
Ø What type of voice disorders can affect our vocal cords?
Although voice issues can occur due to different reasons, they can be classified as:
Organic: a structural disorder involves something physically wrong with the mechanism of the vocal folds. Some examples include nodules, polyps, laryngitis, cysts, contact ulcers, etc. Neurogenic voice disorders can also appear, caused by a problem in the nervous system.
Functional: in this case the physical structure is normal, but the vocal mechanism is being used improperly or inefficiently. For example vocal fatigue or a Muscle Tension Dysphonia can exist. This type of functional problem may cause a structural lesion.
Ø Who can suffer from dysphonia?
Anyone can experience voice difficulties at any time in life, including during childhood, adolescence or adulthood. However, individuals who use their voice as a work tool, such as teachers, singers, actors or broadcasters, have higher chances of developing dysphonia caused by the constant use of their voice.
Ø How can I look after my voice?
Following some simple advice can help us avoid these voice difficulties that so many people suffer from in their everyday life. Below are some recommendations to protect your voice:
· Hydration: drinking enough liquid is essential to help lubricate your vocal folds so they may vibrate correctly. Therefore, you should aim to drink approximately two litres of fluid a day, although it is best to avoid alcohol, caffeine and fizzy drinks and take sips throughout the day. A lack of humidity in the environment can also affect the vocal cords, so in dry climates it can be useful to have a humidifier at home or carry out steam inhalations to moisten your larynx.
· Avoid smoking: as this involves smoke passing constantly between the vocal folds. This inevitably dries them out and causes irritation. Smoking also greatly increases the risk of developing mouth, lung or larynx cancer.
· Be aware of how you use your voice: firstly, regarding the volume used, it is advisable to avoid shouting or raising your voice over loud background noise. Secondly, consider the length of time you are speaking for and try to take breaks when speaking for a long time. Our vocal cords are muscles that can get “tired” if used non-stop.
· When you feel any discomfort: avoid coughing or clearing your throat, as this can irritate the vocal cords even more. It is best to swallow saliva or drink some lukewarm liquid if possible. You can also chew gum or have a sugar-free sweet.
· Respect the natural resistance of your voice: each person has a different tone and volume depending on their individual characteristics and level of voice training. Therefore, in order to avoid the risk of developing voice problems, it is important not to push these limits.
· Be careful with your posture and breathing: sometimes, and specially now we use mobiles and computers on a daily basis, our posture might be affected without us even being aware. This affects the neck muscles and the air coming out of the lungs, which is the mechanism that makes the vocal cords vibrate. To avoid problems, try to relax your shoulders, open your chest and straighten your neck, breathing deeply in a relaxed way to completely fill your lungs with air, instead of taking superficial breaths.
· Get enough sleep and avoid psychological tension: our voice is closely related to our emotional state and therefore, stress can lead to the contraction of our neck and vocal cords, as well as the muscles involved in breathing. Adopting a healthy lifestyle is always a good idea, so aim to carry out any form of relaxation that feels appropriate for you; for example taking regular physical exercise, doing yoga or going to meditation classes. Sleeping at least six hours a night can also help reduce tiredness in our vocal cords and contributes to our general wellbeing.
These are only a few recommendations you can include in your daily routine. However, if you feel the difficulties are persistent in time, you should look for help.
Ø When should I get help?
If you have been feeling discomfort for over a week when speaking or if you need to make a better use of your voice due to your job, please visit a specialist who will be able to help you improve your voice and achieve your goals.
When the symptoms mentioned above become persistent or interfere with your daily activities, the first step would be to visit an ear nose and throat specialist, or otolaryngologist. This professional will be able to assess your vocal structures and give you a diagnosis, as well as information regarding the next steps to follow. In some cases surgery will be necessary and/or voice therapy with a speech and language therapist will be recommended.
Ø What is voice therapy?
Depending on each case, voice therapy with a qualified speech and language therapist will involve different exercises to help you:
- Achieve adequate vocal habits
- Increase awareness regarding your own vocal structures
- Correct your posture and relax neck and throat muscles
- Use breath correctly and effectively when speaking
- Improve the use of resonance cavities
If you have questions about your vocal health, contact a specialist at Sinews!