It is possible to speak with only one functioning vocal cord, but the voice quality is raspy and weak and of lower pitch.
The vocal cords are two bands of elastic muscle tissue in the larynx (voice box) above the trachea (windpipe). The cords usually remain open to help create an airway for breathing. While speaking, the vocal cords close, and the air exhaled from your lungs is forced through the closed vocal cords making them vibrate. The faster the vibration, the higher the pitch, and the slower the vibrations, the lower the pitch. The vocal cords can get inflamed, infected, strained, injured, and paralyzed or develop benign or malignant tumors.
Many vocal cord disorders can be treated conservatively, and the function returns to normal. In some cases, one or both vocal cords can get paralyzed or must be removed due to a tumor. Managing to speak with just one vocal cord requires speech therapy and rehabilitation. The goal of speech therapy is to make the normally functioning vocal cord compensate for the other vocal cord. If both vocal cords are not functioning or are surgically removed, patients may require voice prosthesis or other techniques such as esophageal speech (learning to swallow air into the food pipe and forcing them back up).
What problems can occur in the vocal cord?
Common vocal cord disorders include:
- Vocal cord nodules: These are benign, small, firm to hard growths mainly due to voice abuse. They are also called singers, screamer's, or teacher's nodules.
- Vocal cord polyps: These are benign, small, soft growths usually due to vocal abuse or long-term exposure to irritants, such as chemical fumes, cigarette smoke, and chronic acid reflux.
- Contact ulcers: These are erosions and sores on the vocal cords. They may occur to people who speak often with great force, for example, public speakers. Ulcers also can be caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or heartburn.
- Laryngitis: It is swelling of the vocal cords due to inflammation or infection. It is commonly caused by vocal abuse; allergies; and exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke, chemical fumes, or excessive alcohol.
- Vocal cord tumors: Tumors can be cancerous or noncancerous. Noncancerous tumors may be caused by a virus. Cancerous tumors are more common in smokers and those who consume excessive alcohol.
- Vocal cord paresis and vocal cord paralysis: Vocal cord paresis (weakness) or paralysis (loss of function) occurs when one or both vocal cords do not open and close properly affecting speech and/or breathing. Vocal cord paresis and paralysis can occur due to head and neck, birth, or surgical trauma; neurological diseases; stroke; viral infections; or idiopathic (unidentifiable cause).
What are the signs and symptoms of a vocal cord disorder?
Symptoms can vary depending on the vocal cord disorder. The following signs and symptoms indicate there might be a problem in the vocal cords:
How are vocal cord disorders treated?
Treatment options depend on the vocal cord disorder.
Vocal cord nodules, vocal cord polyps, Contact ulcers, and laryngitis can usually be treated conservatively with voice rest, speech therapy, and medication. Most patients recover in a few weeks and regain their normal voice.
Vocal cord nodules and vocal cord polyps may require surgical removal if conservative treatments fail.
Vocal cord paresis or paralysis may be temporary or permanent. It can take up to a year for the voice to improve. In cases of permanent paralysis, if only one vocal cord is paralyzed, with the help of speech therapy, the patient’s voice can return to normal. If both the vocal cords are paralyzed, a surgery may be done to help improve speech.
Non-cancerous and cancerous vocal cord tumors require surgical removal. Cancerous tumors require removal of one or both the vocal cords. If only one vocal cord is removed, speech therapy can help improve the voice. If both the vocal cords are not functioning or surgically removed, the patient may require surgery, voice prosthesis, or other techniques such as esophageal speech (learning to swallow air into the food pipe and forcing them back up), which requires training.
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