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woman touching her throat from painWheezing. Hoarseness. The sensation of being “strangled.”

These unpleasant symptoms may be red flags that you have vocal cord dysfunction. This disorder results from the vocal cords closing when they’re supposed to stay open. As a result, you may have trouble breathing and experience episodes requiring emergency care.

Vocal cord dysfunction can be managed with the appropriate care plan. At the Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center, we strongly encourage getting evaluated for vocal cord dysfunction if you are experiencing these symptoms. An accurate diagnosis and robust speech therapy can make a huge difference in reducing episodes and improving your day-to-day quality of life.

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What is Vocal Cord Dysfunction?

Vocal cord dysfunction occurs when the vocal cords to “freeze” or tighten and close when they’re supposed to stay open – i.e. for breathing. Those with this disorder are unable to control these muscles, resulting in labored breathing.

Up to 80% of vocal cord dysfunction episodes are mistaken for asthma. Though both conditions cause shortness of breath, vocal cord dysfunction involves the malfunctioning of the vocal cord muscles and not the airways themselves.

While asthma can be life-threatening, vocal cord dysfunction is not – even though it may feel like it. Typically, those suffering from vocal cord dysfunction are still getting enough oxygen.

Important note: If you’re having trouble breathing, you should always seek urgent medical attention.

Types of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction can be organized into four common types, including:

  • Laryngospasm: This occurs when your vocal cords temporarily tighten or spasm, making it hard to breathe.
  • Exercised-induced: During exercise, your vocal cords position themselves in the middle, instead of staying open.
  • Irritant-induced: Due to exposure to irritants – such as smoke or dust – your vocal cords tighten.
  • Stress-induced: Because of stress or psychological factors, your vocal cords respond by tightening.

Causes & Risks of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Triggers of vocal cord dysfunction may include:

  • Exercise
  • Strong smells and irritants (smoke, dust, cleaners, chemical fumes, etc.)
  • Stress and other psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression
  • Voice overuse
  • A cold or viral infection
  • A sinus infection
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Acid reflux

Vocal cord dysfunction is most common in women, especially those aged 20-40. However, it may affect anyone, including kids.

Symptoms of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction is characterized by difficulty breathing, particularly getting air into your lungs (during inspiration). Other symptoms may include:

  • Sensation of choking, suffocating or being “strangled”
  • Wheezing and stridor
  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing and clearing your throat
  • Lump in the throat or throat tightness
  • Chest tightness and pain
  • Voice changes
  • Difficulty speaking

Unlike asthma, vocal cord dysfunction symptoms typically do not occur during sleep.

Diagnosing Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction can be tricky to diagnose because asthma and vocal cord dysfunction share similar symptoms.  To help differentiate between asthma and vocal cord dysfunction, your doctor will assess your oxygen level and your airflow pattern. Here are two common tests that your doctor may perform:

  • Pulse oximeter test: This device clips on your finger or ear and uses light to see what percentage of your red blood cells are carrying oxygen. With vocal cord dysfunction, your oxygen levels are typically normal.
  • Flow-volume loop: This test looks at airflow patterns in your lungs while at rest or exercising. Your doctor will be looking to see if your inhalation pattern is abnormal, which is a common sign of vocal cord dysfunction.

Rhinolaryngoscopy

In addition to these tests, your doctor may want to get a visual of your vocal cords, which will help rule out vocal cord damage or growth that may be causing symptoms.

In this case, you’ll be asked to undergo a rhinolaryngoscopy. This involves a fiber optic scope that is inserted into your nose and throat to look at your vocal cords.

Before insertion, you’ll receive a nasal spray to decongest the nose, as well as a local anesthetic. When the scope enters, it may be uncomfortable, but it should not hurt. You may be asked to breathe and swallow in a certain way once the scope is in place.

During this test, your doctor will examine your throat tissue and how your vocal cords move when you breathe and speak. Usually, it’s recommended not to eat 1-2 hours prior to the test.

Treatment & Management

With the right care plan, you can manage vocal cord dysfunction. A doctor may recommend that you start with breathing exercises and speech therapy.

Speech therapy will work on relaxing your throat and vocal cord muscles and controlling your breathing. Often, you will be given practice exercises to maintain your vocal cord health. Fortunately, speech therapy improves symptoms of vocal cord dysfunction in 90% of cases.

In addition, your doctor will address any triggers of vocal cord dysfunction, such as irritants or post-nasal drip. By preventing your exposure to triggers, you will be less likely to have an episode. In the case of stress, for example, you may undergo relaxation techniques or psychotherapy.

Why Choose the Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center

At Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center, we help patients Breathe, Live and Thrive. After seeing one of our board-certified physicians, patients often feel like they “get their lives back.”

Not only do we have a high standard of expertise and care, but we’re also 100% dedicated to improving patient quality of life. We advocate for adults with vocal cord dysfunction by raising awareness and providing top-of-the-line diagnostic and therapeutic services.

It’s no wonder that we are the area’s largest asthma and allergy practice – and continue to positively impact patient’s lives. Contact us today to learn more about our services or schedule an appointment.

Vocal Cord Dysfunction FAQs

Is vocal cord dysfunction dangerous?

No, vocal cord dysfunction isn’t usually life-threatening, though it can be scary to have trouble breathing. Typically, your body is getting enough oxygen, even if it doesn’t feel like it. However, this disorder makes it uncomfortable to breathe and speak.

How can you tell the difference between asthma and vocal cord dysfunction?

Asthma and vocal cord dysfunction have similar symptoms. However, vocal cord dysfunction is characterized by having trouble breathing in, while asthma affects breathing out. With vocal cord dysfunction, you’ll also have normal oxygen levels and symptoms typically do not occur while you are sleeping.

Can vocal cord dysfunction go away on its own?

No, vocal cord dysfunction does not usually go away on its own. That said, you can manage your symptoms and reduce the frequency of episodes through speech therapy and elimination of triggers.

How long does it take to recover from vocal cord dysfunction?

Treatment for vocal cord dysfunction may take around 3-6 months to see results. During this time, you will learn speech therapy techniques and establish new vocal cord patterns. However, therapy may last longer depending on the individual.

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