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What Does it Mean to Have Damaged Vocal Cords?

Updated on August 2, 2017
Kierstin Gunsberg profile image

Kierstin is THAT woman who strained her vocal cords screaming while giving birth.

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Last month, critically acclaimed vocal artist Adele infuriated fans and gave the internet a brief reprieve from our POTUS' tweets when she announced that she was cancelling the last two shows of what may be the final tour of her music career upon receiving word from her doctor that her vocal cords were too damaged for her to safely perform. While many disgruntled ticket holders denounced their love for the Grammy winner, others just straight up verbally annihilated her in 140 characters or less, while a quieter handful quipped "What exactly does it mean to have damaged vocal cords?" Let's find out!

So, What Exactly are Damaged Vocal Cords?

Have you ever pulled a muscle in your back or leg in a really dumb way, like simply getting out of bed or lifting your kid off the couch? This is the same type of injury your vocal cords experience when they are considered damaged because essentially, your vocal cords (you have two!) are muscles. These muscles vibrate when air passes through them and air passes through them any time you whisper, speak, or sing which is how you're able to express the sound of your voice.

The thing is, if your vocal cords are damaged then whatever is causing the damage is also going to prohibit your cords from properly vibrating and that's why someone with vocal cord damage may have trouble singing or speaking - the sound just can't come out the way it's meant to. So, damaged vocal cords are muscles that have experienced an injury, illness or disease that prohibits them from performing properly.

Vocal cord issues can stem from a range of causes from over-exertion of your voice to illness.
Vocal cord issues can stem from a range of causes from over-exertion of your voice to illness. | Source

What Does it Feel Like to Have Damaged Vocal Cords?

How damaged vocal cords physically affect a person depends on what caused the damage in the first place. If your vocal cords are inflamed from an infection then you'll probably experience a fever along with pain in your throat and other symptoms of infection. If you have an ulcer on your cords then you might feel pain in your throat when talking. You can also experience vocal cord damage from the abrupt and excessive coughing that happens with a nasty cold. One of my best friends in high school ended up with laryngitis every single time she came down with a cold from all of the coughing she did.

But if the damage is due to vocal cord abuse, as was the likely case for Adele you may feel a bit of strain but the most obvious indicator will be an inability to perform vocally whether that's hoarseness or a lack of range.

Other symptoms of vocal cord damage can include:

  • Loud or rattly breathing
  • Clearing your throat often
  • Not being able to speak loudly, like with laryngitis
  • Having to take a bunch of breaths when talking
  • Losing your usual singing range
  • Choking whenever you swallow

How Do You Get Damaged Vocal Cords?

As mentioned above, damaged vocal cords can happen for many reasons. In rare cases they can be caused by a tumor, in other cases they become slightly damaged from inflammation from allergies or even contact ulcers caused by acid reflux. Seriously, who knew that so many things could cause vocal cords issues and how are we not all just walking around with damaged vocal cords, cancelling concerts and crushing the dreams of 30-something moms everywhere?!

One common cause of damaged vocal cords though is vocal cord abuse. This is when the vocal cords don't get enough time to heal between singing sessions so damage is being done on top of damage that already exists which creates scar tissue that eventually prevents singing altogether.

How Do You Treat Damaged Vocal Cords?

To treat damaged vocal cords you'll need to treat the cause of the damage. If you're sick, you'll need to get better. If the damage is thanks to acid reflux, you'll need to treat your symptoms and maintain your health (eat those Tums, sleep slightly propped up) in order to manage your reflux and prevent contact ulcers. If you're straining your voice singing, you'll need to call it quits on using your voice for a while, just like Adele did, to give your strained cords a chance to heal and to address any possible issues with nodules resulting from prolonged damage. In other cases the damage may require surgery or medication to fully heal the vocal cords.

A good rule of thumb if you suspect you have damaged vocal cords is to pop into your GP for a quick exam. They can look back there with a little mirror and help make suggestions for treatment which might include resting your voice or even visiting with a vocal coach to find ways to communicate without straining your vocal cords so much. You'll also want to avoid smoking or inhaling anything strong and chemically as well as consuming alcohol because all of these things can further irritate the area that you're trying to heal.

If your vocal cords are in recovery stay hydrated and replace your usual evening glass of wine with a decaf iced tea or water until you get the a-ok from your doc that everything is back to normal.
If your vocal cords are in recovery stay hydrated and replace your usual evening glass of wine with a decaf iced tea or water until you get the a-ok from your doc that everything is back to normal. | Source

How Can You Protect Your Vocal Cords and Prevent Vocal Cord Damage?

Take care of your throat! Avoid smoking and excessive drinking, two things that can lead to serious and even life-threatening vocal cord damage.

When you're sick with an upper respiratory virus or infection take care not to over-strain when you cough, sip on warm liquids to help quell coughing spells and keep your vocal cords rested by enjoying quiet activities like reading a book or bingeing on Netflix instead of talking to friends and family.

If you have a condition that makes you more prone to vocal cord damage taking care to manage your symptoms is the best way to prevent something from happening to your vocal cords.

And, if you're a vocalist, research ways to prevent vocal cord abuse and talk with your mentors to create a strategy for keeping your voice healthy and strong between performances and practice.

And if all else fails and you're put on vocal-cord rest then take solace in the fact that doing so isn't going to crush an entire demographic's weekend plans.

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Have you ever been diagnosed with damaged vocal cords? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!

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© 2017 Kierstin Gunsberg

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    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
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      Kierstin Gunsberg 3 days ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      That's a really good point, Flourish, because talking that way does seem like it would put some strain on the vocal cords. As a millennial I find myself falling into that pattern when I'm talking with friends. It's contagious, yikes!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 days ago from USA

      Gladly, I've never experienced this, but it was an interesting read. With so many young women adopting the "vocal fry" I worry about them intentionally engaging in habits that will do damage to their voices.

    • Kierstin Gunsberg profile image
      Author

      Kierstin Gunsberg 9 days ago from Traverse City, Michigan

      Ha! Sounds like a noisy workplace!

    • TimFilmoore profile image

      TimFilmoore 10 days ago from Los Angeles CA

      sometimes i do fel some strain when shouting at co workers :) nice article!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 2 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

      *Touch wood* I've never had damage to my vocal chords. I hope I never do!