Voice disorders affect your ability to speak clearly. They’re usually the result of overusing your voice or issues with your voice box or vocal cords. Most people can overcome voice disorders with voice therapy, though some will need medical or surgical treatment.
Voice disorders affect your ability to speak normally. They may change the quality, pitch or loudness of your voice. A voice disorder can prevent you from communicating with others or expressing yourself. This can have a serious impact on your quality of life.
Air moves through your lungs, up into your windpipe (trachea) and through your voice box (larynx). Your vocal cords are on either side of your larynx. They vibrate as air moves through them, which produces the sound of your voice. It’s a little like whistling. When you force air through your lips, they vibrate slightly and make a high-pitched sound.
Voice disorders typically fall into one of the following categories, but they may overlap:
There are many types of voice disorders, but some of the most common include:
Anyone can develop a voice disorder, but certain factors increase your risk:
Between 3% and 9% of the U.S. population have a voice disorder at some time, though less than 1% of these people seek treatment. Teachers are by far the most at-risk population. In one study of nearly a thousand teachers, about 57% had a voice disorder.
Overusing your voice is the most common cause of voice disorders. You can overuse your voice by yelling, singing or simply talking too much.
More complex voice disorders occur when there’s a problem with the structure, muscles or nerves in your voice box or vocal cords.
Symptoms of voice disorders vary widely depending on their cause. Your voice may sound:
Your primary healthcare provider may diagnose a voice disorder, or they may refer you to a speech-language pathologist or laryngologist (a doctor who specializes in disorders of the voice box). They perform a thorough physical exam and evaluate your symptoms and medical history. Your healthcare provider may ask you questions about how your voice challenges are affecting your life at home, work or school.
Your healthcare provider will look very closely at your face, head, neck and throat while you perform speaking or breathing exercises. Report any physical symptoms you feel during these exercises. Tell them if you have pain, scratchiness or difficulty breathing.
If you do see a speech-language pathologist, this provider will likely perform detailed tests to assess different aspects of your voice, including tone, pitch and volume.
To see how well your voice box and vocal cords are working, your healthcare provider may recommend imaging tests. A laryngoscopy uses a special tool called a laryngoscope (a thin, flexible tube with a video camera attached) to examine the back of your throat. During this test, they may also perform a biopsy. Your healthcare provider takes samples from nodules, polyps or cysts and examines them under a microscope to check for diseases.
Some short-term voice disorders, such as hoarseness, might improve by resting your voice. Avoid shouting, singing or straining your voice for several days. Talk as little as possible.
People with more complex voice disorders may need voice therapy. Speech-language pathologists teach techniques and exercises to regulate your voice so you can communicate more clearly. A few examples include:
Some voice disorders require medical or surgical treatment, such as botulin toxin injections to relax the tight voice box muscles.
Some voice disorders aren’t preventable, but you can reduce your risk by taking care of your voice. Be sure to:
Voice disorders associated with overuse or acute illnesses are usually temporary and don’t cause permanent damage. Most people with more complex voice disorders can overcome voice challenges with the right treatments.
Questions you may want to ask your healthcare provider include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Voice disorders affect your ability to speak clearly. They might affect the volume, tone or pitch of your voice. Sometimes, voice problems are due to overuse and resolve once you rest your voice. Other times, voice problems are the result of more complex health conditions. If you notice a change in your voice that lasts longer than a few weeks, contact your healthcare provider.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/17/2022.
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