Singing is rough. It involves millions of micro-collisions inside the throat. Vocal cords are a pair of thin strips, which are located inside the voice box, or larynx, inside the throat. Your vocal cords have the highest concentration of nerve tissue in your body.
When you are silent, the cords – also known as vocal folds – remain apart to allow breathing. But when you speak or sing, the lungs push out air, which causes the edges of the folds to come into contact in rapid vibrating motion. This vibration is what creates sound. The more the vibration, the higher the pitch gets. And by the time you’re hitting those high notes, your cords could be hitting each other at 1000 times per second.
All this slapping together can eventually wear down the cords’ surfaces and result in tiny contusions. Over time, cysts, polyps, and nodules form on the vocal cords, thus distorting the sound being created. For a singer, wobbling is usually the first sign of trouble. Their pitch fluctuates because their folds have lost their natural vibrato (the ability to resonate correctly). Eventually, years of wear and tear might cause the lesions to burst and bleed, resulting in voice-ruining scars. That is what happened to Adele, thus necessitating immediate surgery.
Vocal damage can be avoided by observing healthy vocal practices. The following will help you maintain healthy vocal cords:
- Stay hydrated
Hydrated vocal folds are less likely to wear out.
- Get enough sleep
Your cords need rest, just like the rest of your body, to ensure they function optimally.
- Exercise regularly
Exercise helps to alleviate tension that often centers around the throat.
- Address allergies
Allergies might cause post-nasal drip, which is when mucus drips onto your vocal folds and irritates them. Thus, if you are prone to allergies, consult with your physician about the necessary precautions.
- Warm up
Through techniques such as humming, lip trill, and scale singing, it’s important for singers to warm up their voices prior to performing — similar to how athletes stretch before embarking on exercise or competition.
In athletes, poor technique often results in injury. This is the same for singers. Bad vocal technique can put unnecessary strain on your cords, thereby necessitating medical attention.
Symptoms of Damaged Vocal Cords
Here are signs that you need to seek voice care:
- Voice change or persistent hoarseness
Hoarseness refers to when your voice sounds raspy or breathy. While it is often caused by an extended period of yelling or a head cold, it could also be indicative of a serious issue such as a growth on the vocal folds, which include cysts or polyps. Thus, if your hoarseness is persistent, ensure that you see a laryngologist.
- Voice Fatigue
This is caused by voice overuse and is common among singers, teachers, and call-center operators. Thus, just like your legs need rest after running, so do your cords after extended periods of use. Voice therapists recommend 10 minutes of voice rest for every 90 minutes of use. Overuse may damage your vocal folds.
- Discomfort or Throat Pain
If you must exert yourself more than usual to produce your regular voice, it indicates something is wrong.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, it is imperative that you visit a throat specialist to have it examined. This could potentially save your music career.
Although surgery is not the only option for treating vocal damage, it is the most common technique for professional singers as they’re more prone to severe throat conditions than any other profession.
Voice Surgery Techniques
- Microscopic Laryngeal Surgery
This is an inpatient procedure used to remove growths on your cords and is done through the mouth. Precise care must be taken while removing the growth not to damage the thin tissue covering the vocal fold. This precision also ensures that you will heal quickly.
- Angiolytic KTP Laser
This technique is used in cases where growths keep returning. It involves using a flexible laryngoscope that is fitted with a laser and a lighted scope. It is inserted through your nose to get to your throat.
The laser is used to treat the lesions. It is an outpatient procedure that can be done over lunch break. Once the lesions have been treated, you resume your activities and only return when they develop again. This spares you the pains of hospital procedures.
- Medialization Laryngoplasty
This procedure is for cords that do come together completely. Here, the physician will inject a material that provides support to the vocal cord in order to make it plumper, thereby reducing the gap between the cords.
- Surgery for Vocal Fold Gaps and Unilateral Paralysis
These are procedures used to correct gaps resulting from unilateral vocal fold paralysis. They include:
Thyroplasty. This involves performing an operation on your voice box to make it stronger. An implant made of Gore-Tex or silicon is inserted next to the vocal fold to push it towards the midline to enhance your voice. The incision is made on the outside of your neck.
Laryngeal Reinnervation. This procedure involves creating a new, functioning nerve supply to the immobile (paralyzed) vocal cord.
Even though these surgical treatment techniques have a high success rate, they are not without risk. In 1997, Julie Andrews went to get non-cancerous nodules eliminated from her vocal cords. Unfortunately, the surgery was unsuccessful and left her voice scratchy and irreparable. She eventually filed a medical-malpractice lawsuit against the hospital in 1999. Such stories have made a lot of singers reluctant to seek surgery for their ailing voices.
Fortunately, however, improvements in science and technology have seen better and more refined surgical methods. Nevertheless, before you embark on any voice surgery procedure, ensure that you first consult with an experienced laryngologist so that they can advise you appropriately.
To have an extended music career, you need to put in a great deal of effort into protecting your vocal cords. However, sometimes that’s just not enough, and you might find yourself needing voice care treatment.
Use this post as a guide on how to take care of your voice and spot serious issues that might jeopardize your singing ability.
Guest Blogger – Zwivel Team