Have you ever had serious issues emitting a specific sound?, Have you experienced difficulties to maintain your voice or felt hoarse or tired when talking? It's likely, then, that you have suffered an episode of dysphonia or of any one of the most common vocal disorders. Learning how to identify them and prevent them will allow you to maintain your voice heathy and keep its quality when it comes to singing or communicating.
Main disorders in the singer's voice
From the lungs, the air rises through the larynx and meets the vocal folds, the muscle membranes which vibrate to create sound. A complex system of resonating cavities shape the air which, being expelled through the mouth, becomes what we know as the voice.
This is a very simplified explanation of what really happens in the voice production and emission process, but it is enough to understand that in the journey the air goes through, from the lungs till it reaches the world outside, sometimes there are impediments. That is what is known as a vocal disorder, a worrying situation for anyone and especially for singers, since it will affect their main working tool.
What is the difference between aphonia and dysphonia?
The two main vocal disorders are: Aphonia and dysphonia. These are two very different pathologies with distinct characteristics, althought usually mistaken for one another outside of specialised circles and amongst those not versed in the use and treatment of the voice.
It is almost certain on more than one occasion you've heard the expression "I've lost my voice" after someone spent many hours talking, partying, or after a mild respiratory disease like influenza or the common cold. It's a common expression, but has little to do with the reality of aphonia, an serious and often problematic malfunction which should not be confused with dysphonia, a transient vocal disorder which usually bears no further trouble..
It could be said that dysphonia is the more common condition which can be addressed and corrected without too many difficulties, while aphonia usually means more serious and delicate complications and must be treated with a greater degree of monitoring and care to guarantee a complete recovery. To summarise, the following are the main symptoms of both vocal ailments:
- Dysphonia: When the main vocal frequencies are suddenly affected, we have a feeling of dryness in the throat and we experience difficulties to maintain the voice or emit certain sounds, we are looking at a case of dysphonia. While it is true that these could also mean the initial stages of a more worrying case of aphonia, the more common scenario is that it is only a circumstantial issue affecting the vocal folds, although other elements are involved in the vocal tract such as the larynx or pharynx. Dysphonia is the direct consequence of a vocal misuse. Too high a pitch, unhealthy habits such as throat clearing or smoking are not only a usual cause, but can also make the situation worse, the end result is the inability to produce sounds at a sufficent volume for effective communication.
- Aphonia: This is a much more serious medical issue. The most obvious symptom is a complete inability to produce sound, usually caused by the rupture of the recurrent laryngeal nerve. Front of dysphonia, aphonia is not a circumstantial or transient ailment. Its causes can vary and range from moderate to severe dysfunctions of the respiratory tract, such as pharyngitis or laryngitis, to the presence of nodules or tumors. This type of vocal disorder which completely prevents singing or speaking may also be caused by nerve damage or be the unfortunate side effect of surgery. Given its severity, professional diagnosis and specialized treatment are completely necessary.
Methods to avoid vocal ailments and how to recover from them
If you use the voice as a working tool, should any of the symptoms mentioned above appear, it is best to go to an appointment with an otolaryngologist or a phoniatrist. Only a vocal system specialist will be able to establish a successful diagnosis from the symptoms that you present and, when necessary, perform the necessary tests from which to choose the most appropriate treatment.
The laryngoscopy and the nasopharyngoscopy are two of the most widely used diagnostics methods nowadays for the study of disorders of the voice when the symptoms presented indicate a potentially serious scenario. These tests allow the doctor to know the full condition of the vocal tract and determine if there is any damage to the laryngeal nerves, nodules, polyps or paralysis of the vocal cords or spasmodic episodes that are hindering the production of sound.
Amongs the most advanced treatments to deal with the loss of the voice, one the most notable cases includes injections of botulinum toxins (Botox) which block signals from the muscles to the nerves, thus relaxing them and weakening them for a progressive improvement of the vocal quality. However, in the presence of polyps and tumors, this type of treatment is not enough and surgical interventions tend to be necessary.
All things considered, there are some very effective methods to prevent diseases of the vocal tract that will help you to avoid them or recover from them in a secure manner:
- Avoid mouthwashes with alcohol or irritating products.
- Exercise regularly always paying special attention to controlling your breath and posture.
- Avoid spicy foods, as stomach reflux can damage the esophagus and throat.
- Stop smoking and avoid environments with smoke.
- Drink plenty of water. Hydration is a key factor to maintaining healthy vocal folds.
- Reduce the intake of alcohol and caffeine-containing foods as these cause loss of fluid in the body and raise the concentration of mucous membranes lining the throat.
Learn how to take care of your voice
With the information in the sections above at hand, we can establish that the origin of vocal disorders may be of three types: medical (tumors, nodules or the formation of polyps on the vocal folds), behavioral (improper use of the voice and unhealthy habits) or emotional (anxiety, stress, depression...).
A professional singer cannot always have complete control over all the causes which may be the origin of these disorders, but they can make an effort to be wary of the most common to ensure that they preserve a healthy vocal tract and folds.
Singers, actors and presenters have to educate their voices on a day to day basis as, due to the requirements of their craft, their resistance to vocal misuse is much lower than that of any other person (around two hours instead of the four hour average for the rest of the population). Breath, posture, knowledge of the appropriate tone of voice, the correct pace of vocal emission and ensuring an adecuate rest are some of the key aspects to take into account when working with the voice on a regular basis.