What are vocal cords?

Vocal cords, often referred to as vocal folds, play an essential role in the production of human voice. First there must be air in the lungs; this occurs through the act of inhaling. The air is then pushed through the lungs into the windpipe. At the top of the windpipe sit the vocal cords. The cords stay open when breathing and close when sound is being produced. As the air gets pushed out of the windpipe, it passes between the vocal cords, causing them to vibrate. This vibration sounds like a buzzing. This sound is passed through the throat, nose and mouth, which all work together to change the buzzing into speech.

Any disorder that affects the vocal cords will affect speech.

Vocal Cord Disorders

Vocal cord paralysis can be bilateral or unilateral. Bilateral involves both cords becoming stuck half open and half closed. The cords are unable to move in either direction. Unilateral occurs when only one side is stuck or has very limited movement.

Hoarseness, an inability to speak loudly and choking or coughing while eating are common signs of vocal cord paralysis. To make a diagnosis, a doctor will review the patient’s symptoms and complete a physical exam. An endoscope is inserted down the patient’s nose or throat so the doctor can get a better look at the vocal cords. Once the vocal cords are in view, the doctor asks the patient to speak in order to watch what happens.

Vocal Cord Treatment

For patients diagnosed with bilateral vocal cord paralysis, a tracheotomy may be needed. This procedure creates a hole in the trachea and a tube is inserted to help the patient breathe. Unilateral vocal cord paralysis may also require surgery to move the paralyzed vocal cord.

Non-surgical treatments such as behavioral therapy may be recommended by a doctor before surgery is needed. This type of therapy teaches the patient how to breathe better and how to find the best body positon to produce strong speech.

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