Dr Gordon Soo, The ENTific Centre
In the first part of this article, we understand how our voice is produced, and in simple terms, how we lose our voice. Losing our voice is a problem for anyone as we are always communicating our wishes, dreams, love and needs to others.
So what can we do if we lose our voice? Firstly, we should not panic as common things happen commonly, and the commonest cause by far, is an acute viral laryngitis. The swelling from acute laryngitis is usually maximal at three days, after which the swelling subsides gradually, and the voice gradually returns to normal. During the inflamed phase, sufferers are best advised not to use their voice, as continuing voice use could damage and permanently scar the vocal cord lining. This scarring could result in a permanent hoarse voice by impairing the movement of the mucosal lining over the vocal ligaments.
Losing one’s voice is not unusual at all and most voices recover very quickly. If our voice doesn’t return to normal and you remain hoarse beyond three weeks, medical attention to make a diagnosis and to prevent long term irreversible damage would be recommended. Your ENT Surgeon can easily inspect your voice box by performing a flexible endoscopic examination of the larynx. So what conditions can cause chronic loss of voice that can be seen by endoscopy?
A growth on one or both vocal cords can prevent optimal closure of the cords. Excess air then leaks through the gap and voice production is impaired in terms of quality as well as intensity of the voice. Commonly the early formation of vocal cord nodules is the cause. Two non-cancerous thickening of the vocal cords on exactly opposite vocal cord surfaces prevent the cords from coming together well. With the leak, the voice is lost, and we try even harder to produce a voice by speaking louder. This means that the nodules can get bigger, and the hoarseness continues. Treatment here is primarily by speech therapy to re-educate the user how to use their voice better like a singer. If the nodules are too large and /or speech therapy has not worked, then phonosurgery to trim away the nodules may be necessary. If a growth is seen only on one vocal cord, then early surgery may be necessary to exclude cancer. Here the lesion is examined close up, excised and sent for testing. If it is cancerous, then follow up treatment protocols will be advised. However if the lesion looks like a cyst or a polyp under close up endoscopic examination during surgery, the lesion is removed with gentle and careful preservation of the vocal cord lining. This is called phonosurgery and requires great skill. The removal of the lesion is both diagnostic (as we sent the lesion for testing to know what it is) as well as also therapeutic (as the hoarse voice is treated as well)
A total loss of one’s voice is a catastrophe. This is unusual but it happens when one of the two vocal cords is paralysed. They are unable to meet in the midline, the gap is left wide open and therefore no turbulence or voice can be made. The cause here is damage to the nerve that moves the vocal cord. This nerve travels from our brain, down our neck pass our thyroid gland and even as far down as our lung, before turning around to innervate our voice box, one on each side. Cancer in the neck, lung cancer, strokes, penetrating trauma and surgery to the neck and thyroid are the usual causes that damage this nerve. If this is the case and recovery is not forthcoming, the voice can be improved by surgical treatment that pushes the affected cord to the center to a “closed” position. By re-siting the affected vocal cord to the midline “closed” position, surgeons allow the voice to be reproduced again when the normally functioning opposite vocal cord moves and easily close the gap. Rushing air from the lung re-vibrates the cords once again, turbulence of the air is produced and a voice is regenerated again. This particular treatment is important for these paralyzed vocal cords sufferers, as aside from a more normal voice, upper body strength is improved with an improved cough to maintain a clean and sputum free lung.
Remember, our voice is important and most loss of voice conditions are mild, short-lasting with full recovery. A persistent hoarse voice should not be regarded as normal as diagnosis is easily made with endoscopy in a clinic setting. Timely treatment ensures a good quality strong voice either by medication, speech therapy, surgery or all a combination of treatment to suit the problem.