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What is Vocal Fold Paralysis?

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen

When vocal fold paralysis occurs, one of the folds generally stops moving and gets stuck in one position. This can make it difficult for people to control their voices or make sounds at all. This can often be a permanent condition depending on the cause, but doctors do have some treatment options that can help.

The vocal folds are widely considered the main key to how people make sounds when speaking or singing, and they've also been called the vocal cords. These organs vibrate, which creates a sound when combined with the passage of air. When vocal fold paralysis happens, people may find that their voices become rough or gravelly. Another common symptom is a quiet voice that breaks frequently and sounds labored or has mild laryngitis. In a few cases, the paralysis can make it almost impossible for people to speak audibly. Some individuals may also have some pain associated with vocal fold paralysis, which may be worse when people try to talk or sing.


Sometimes doctors are simply unable to find the cause of a paralyzed vocal fold. This is because it is usually related to some nerve damage, and damaged nerves may not always show up visibly on diagnostic tests. In cases where doctors are able to determine the cause, they often find things like tumors that are pressing against the nerve that triggers vocal fold movement or an underlying infection that’s damaging a nerve.

The symptoms of vocal fold paralysis often look like the typical gravely hoarseness associated with a cold, so doctors may not become concerned until the condition has been present for a while. The main method of diagnosing vocal fold paralysis is to simply look at the vocal folds using various instruments like small cameras while someone tries to make sounds. It is usually pretty obvious that one of the folds isn’t functioning properly. Once doctors realize that paralysis has occurred, they may do a variety of other tests to determine exactly why.

If there is some treatable underlying cause for the paralysis, doctors will try to deal with it. When that isn't an option, there are a few surgical procedures that can usually help. The main focus of the surgeries is to prop the malfunctioning vocal fold so that it stays "closed" and the other fold can modulate sounds against it more easily. This is done in many different ways, and the actual technique will usually depend on what position the fold is stuck in. These methods don't necessarily give a person as much vocal control as they would normally have, but they usually suffice for normal speaking.

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