What is Spasmodic Dysphonia?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 06 May 2020
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Spasmodic dysphonia is an unusual communication illness that was once thought to be psychological in nature. There are three types of this condition and all of them affect the way people speak, though each type may cause slightly different speaking problems. Usually in these conditions the voice breaks, sounds like a whisper, sounds like stuttering or is high pitched. This may occur only occasionally, or it might occur frequently depending on severity.

The main cause of spasmodic dysphonia is dysfunction of larynx muscles (the muscles in the voice box). These move involuntarily, creating trouble with speaking. Different muscles can be involved, and the different actions of these muscles define the varied types of the condition.

Adductor spasmodic dysphonia, for instance, cause the vocal cords to shut and stay shut. Any attempt to get sound out usually results in a strangled sounding voice or it can simply cut off speech while people are trying to say something, which may make words seem like a stutter. In contrast, the abductor form of this condition results in the vocal cords fully opening, which means any words spoken may not be audible or may sound like a whisper. Some people have mixed spasmodic dysphonia and experience both involuntary shutting and opening of the vocal cords.

All types of this condition are more likely to affect women, and the age of onset is usually from the 30s to midlife. Mistakenly believing this condition was psychological was really due to its age of onset. However it’s now very clear to the medical community that this condition is physical in nature, though sometimes stress and concern about being able to speak may worsen it. There is some evidence too, that spasmodic dysphonia can occur with other involuntary muscle movement disorders like torticollis, or tardive dyskinesia. Since tardive dyskinesia may be caused in some cases by taking antipsychotic meds, it’s possible that spasmodic dysphonia is a potential risk when taking these too, though this is not clearly stated in medical literature.

There’s also some indication that some people with spasmodic dysphonia may have inherited it. Studies on the 12th chromosome suggest there may be a gene that can cause it some of the time. This is backed up by the fact the condition has been observed as being shared by more than one member of the same family.

People who have spasmodic dysphonia may start looking for diagnosis by seeing their physicians. Generally, physicians may refer patients to ear nose throat doctors (otolaryngologists). Another professional present on the team for diagnosis could be a speech language expert.

Treatments can vary but may include speech language therapy. Surgery on the vocal cords isn’t generally preferred because it usually is only successful for a few years or few months, and it can damage the cords, threatening ability to verbally communicate forever. Some people find help with repeated Botox® injections, since these can calm muscle spasms and make it easier to talk.


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