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What Is a Voice Disorder?

Voice disorders can make speaking, singing, or communicating with others painful or difficult. You may have a voice disorder if you are experiencing the following problems with your voice:

  • Pitch (how high or low your voice is or changes to your pitch range abilities)
  • Quality (changes to the sound of your voice, such as increased breathiness, strain, or roughness)
  • Changes in the ability to project your voice or loudness levels

Why Choose the Voice Disorders Center?

The Voice Disorders Center at University of Utah Health provides exceptional and comprehensive voice, swallow, and airway health care to children and adults through innovative research, education and personalized attention to all we serve. We strive to create an enduring, trusting relationship with compassion, respect, and commitment to exceptional patient care through expert interdisciplinary evaluation and treatment. 

Our team consists of experts from many disciplines: 

We offer state-of-the art and evidence-based assessment and treatment options, including medical, pharmaceutical, surgical, and behavioral therapy approaches.

Diversity & Mutual Respect

We value diversity and mutual respect. Our team is committed toward supporting and cultivating experts/leaders in voice, airway, and swallowing disorders. We value honesty, open communication, team-based activities, mutual respect/support, positive solution-based problem-solving and patient-centered care. Our clinic resides in an academic medical center that takes pride in advancing our clinical practice through research, education, teaching, and service.

Types of Voice Disorders

At U of U Health, our specialists see a range of voice disorders range from the familiar to the rare:

  • Neurogenic voice disorders—These are abnormalities in how your body’s nervous system and larynx work together. They include the disorders listed below:
    • Laryngeal dystonia (previously known as spasmodic dysphonia)—These are involuntary spasms in the larynx muscles that cause your voice to “break” or have a tight, strained quality or breathy breaks associated with speaking specific speech sounds.
    • Vocal tremor—Vocal tremor leads to shakiness in the voice caused by neurologic disorders, such as essential tremor or medication side-effects.
    • Vocal fold paralysis/paresisThis is an injury to the nerves in one or both of your vocal folds within the larynx.
  • Non-cancerous lesions—These vocal fold lesions include nodules, polyps, and cysts.
  • Presbyphonia—As you age, your vocal fold tissues and function can change, resulting in changes in pitch, loudness, and voice quality.
  • Resonance disorders—These occur when the soft palate that hangs from the back of the roof of your mouth doesn’t close tightly against the back of the throat. This results in a nasal quality of your voice.
  • Laryngitis—Inflammation of the tissues of the vocal folds or larynx can cause changes in pitch, loudness, and voice quality. 
Picture of white male doctor examining the front of white male patient's throat

Voice Disorder Symptoms

Some people with a voice disorder may sound fine, but find it painful or difficult to produce sound, especially after using the voice for longer durations of time. Others don’t have any physical signs of a voice disorder, but their voice sounds raspy or strained.

Symptoms of a voice disorder include the following:

  • Chronic cough or sensation of a lump in the throat
  • Chronically achy, sore, or strained throat
  • Difficulty hitting high notes when singing
  • Discomfort while swallowing
  • Hoarseness or raspy voice quality
  • Sudden changes in your vocal quality, such as a more nasal quality or strained voice
  • Frequent tendency to lose your voice

Voice disorders can affect anyone, from teachers and opera signers to teenagers and older adults. If you notice problems with your voice that don’t go away in a few weeks, talk to your primary care provider about consulting a voice specialist.

Causes of Voice Disorders

Voice disorders occur for many reasons:

  • Aging
  • Viral infection
  • Lifestyle habits, such as smoking and vaping
  • Overuse and misuse
  • Effects of surgery or another type of medical procedure
  • Traumatic injury to the larynx or neck
  • Underlying health problems, such as cancer, Parkinson’s diseasemultiple sclerosis (MS)dystonia, and others

Voice Disorder Diagnostic Tests

Diagnosing a voice disorder will require specialized tests, including:

  • Scope tests—The specialist will inserts a thin, flexible tube (scope) with a light at the end into the airway through your nose or mouth to view different throat structures and assess your breathing, voicing, and swallowing.
  • Imaging tests—We use X-rayscomputed tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect growths or other tissue problems in your throat.
  • Electromyography—This will test the electrical activity in the muscles of the throat.
  • Acoustic and aerodynamic measures of your voice and speech—This will help us evaluate normal and abnormal vocal functions to guide our diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

Voice Disorders Treatment

Many voice disorders respond well to treatment, especially when diagnosed early. Treatment depends on what’s causing your voice disorder. Your personalized treatment plan may include voice therapy, oral medication and injections, or in-office or hospital-based vocal chord surgery. 

What to Expect at Your First Appointment

You will meet with a laryngologist and speech-language pathologist at your first appointment. The appointment will last 90 minutes to two hours. This visit is an opportunity for the team to assess your condition and develop a treatment plan: 

  • We will talk to you about your health history, voice problems, and symptoms.
  • We will ask you to complete a standard questionnaire.
  • We will ask you about the goals for your voice.
  • We will perform a physical exam of your mouth and throat to evaluate the structure, movement, coordination, and strength.
  • We will provide or order additional tests to diagnose your voice problems. 

At the end of your appointment, our team will share their assessment results and treatment recommendations. If needed, we will communicate the treatment plan with your primary care provider and other specialists on your care team, such as a cancer doctor, neurologist, gastroenterologist, or allergist.

Picture of white female doctor wearing a face mask while she swabs a young female patient's throat.

Find a Voice Disorder Specialist

Make an Appointment at the Voice Disorders Center

You will need a physician referral to make an appointment at the Voice Disorders Center at U of U Health. After we receive the referral, a team member will call you to set up an appointment and learn about the voice problems you are experiencing. If you have had previous tests or treatment related to your concerns, we will want to see the medical records in advance. This will help us better serve you at your first appointment. To make an appointment, please call 801-587-3550 or request an appointment online. 

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