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What is Vocal Cord Paralysis?

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  • Written By: Autumn Rivers
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 16 July 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Vocal cord paralysis occurs when one or both vocal cords cease to work properly, resulting in difficulty speaking or breathing. This condition can be attributed to an injury to the vocal cords, inflammation of the area, a stroke, tumors, or neurological conditions. Though vocal cord paralysis can typically be treated through surgery and voice therapy, it can sometimes lead to choking or the inability to breathe at all, which is why prompt medical treatment is important. Doctors use various tests to diagnose the issue so that the cause can be pinpointed and the problem can be treated correctly with either surgery or voice therapy.

Most patients will find that only one of their vocal cords is affected by this condition, but that symptoms impact both the voice and breathing ability. For example, patients may notice that they have a hoarse, breathy voice, and cannot speak loudly or very long without taking several breaths. Other symptoms include an apparent loss of the gag reflex, loud breathing, and coughing, especially when eating or drinking. If all or most of these symptoms are observed, it is important to see a doctor.

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Some people are more likely to experience vocal cord paralysis than others since there are some risk factors. One cause is injury to the vocal folds, including during any surgery that targets the neck or chest. Some people may find that tumors growing near the voice box have damaged their vocal cords, while those with arthritis may find that the disease even extends to their vocal cords, as it is possible for cord joints to be damaged. Neurological issues can also wreak havoc on this part of the body, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke, in which case messages from the brain to the vocal cords are interrupted due to loss of blood flow.

Fortunately, most cases of vocal cord paralysis can be treated by either surgery, voice therapy, or a combination of the two. Voice therapy is usually started first, as some people get better just using this treatment, which consists of exercises to help relax and improve the vocal cords. Severe cases of vocal cord paralysis that affect both vocal folds and inhibit the ability to breathe may call for a tracheotomy, which involves cutting into the wind pipe and inserting a breathing tube. Another type of surgery is called vocal cord repositioning, and involves moving the affected cord toward the middle of the voice box so that the other one can easily vibrate against it. Finally, a second type of surgery for vocal cord paralysis requires the doctor to add collagen, or body fat, to the affected cord so that it is thick enough for the unaffected cord to vibrate against.

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