Vocal Cord Paralysis

When the two vocal cords are functioning properly, they act as valves in the upper airway, opening and closing during breathing. When one or both of these vocal cords stop moving, this is referred to as vocal paralysis.

There are two variations of vocal cord paralysis:

  • Unilateral vocal cord paralysis, where one vocal cord is paralyzed
  • Bilateral vocal cord paralysis, characterized by both vocal cords ceasing movement

Causes of Vocal Cord Paralysis

Vocal cord paralysis is often caused by damaged nerves in the larynx (voice box), which can be a result of:

  • Trauma to the head, neck or chest
  • Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson’s disease
  • A stroke

In many instances, however, the cause of vocal cord paralysis is unknown.

Symptoms of Vocal Cord Paralysis

Patients with vocal cord paralysis may experience:

  • Changes in the voice, such as hoarseness or breathy speech
  • Shortness of breath
  • Problems with swallowing, which can lead to choking or coughing while eating
  • Loss of volume or pitch while talking

More serious issues with breathing can be found in patients with bilateral vocal paralysis.

Diagnosing Vocal Cord Paralysis

Vocal cord paralysis can be diagnosed by an otolaryngologist, who will ask when you began to experience symptoms and will listen for hoarseness in your voice and labored breathing. He or she may also use an endoscope to look into the throat and examine the vocal cords.

Another procedure commonly performed to evaluate the severity of vocal paralysis is laryngeal electromyography, which assesses the electrical impulses in the larynx.

Treating Vocal Cord Paralysis

The first step in treating vocal cord paralysis involves voice therapy, during which a speech pathologist will guide a patient through a number of exercises designed to strengthen the vocal cords and improve breathing. If the condition has not improved after one year of voice therapy, more serious treatments may be warranted. The otolaryngologists at Tampa General Hospital can treat vocal cord paralysis by performing one of the following medical procedures:

  • Injections into the non-moving vocal cord
  • Laryngoplasty surgery, during which an implant is placed in the larynx through a small incision in the neck to reposition the paralyzed vocal cord