What Are Voice & Swallowing Issues?
Voice and swallowing issues refer to a broad range of conditions and disorders that affect a person’s ability to speak or perform normal daily activities, such as eating and drinking. Voice and swallowing issues can affect people of all ages and walks of life and, although they may present significant lifestyle barriers, the most common disorders are rarely life-threatening.
Common voice and swallowing disorders include:
- Dysphagia — A general term used to describe difficulty swallowing, dysphagia is usually a symptom of another underlying problem rather than a diagnosis. Dysphagia can result from problems with two areas - the esophagus, the muscular tube that pushes food from the mouth down into the stomach, or the throat (oropharyngeal).
- Chronic cough — A cough that persists for eight or more weeks.
- Chronic laryngitis — Laryngitis is inflammation of the vocal folds resulting from an infection, irritation or overuse. The inflammation disturbs the flow of air through the voice box, leading to voice changes. Chronic laryngitis refers to laryngitis that lasts three or more weeks.
- Paralyzed vocal folds — This uncommon condition is caused by the nerves in the voice box becoming damaged due to virus, tumors in the upper chest or neck, breathing tubes in the windpipe or complications from neck or chest surgery.
- Spasmodic dysphonia — A neurological disorder in which the larynx experiences involuntary spasms. The condition usually sets in gradually during middle age, and is more likely to affect women than men.
- Laryngopharyngeal reflux — Occurs when stomach contents back all the way up into the pharynx or throat. LPR is similar to GERD, but does not always cause a burning sensation in the chest.
- Zenker’s diverticulum — A pouch that forms in the throat, where the esophagus meets a part of the throat called the pharynx. The primary symptom is dysphagia.
Voice and swallowing disorders can present with a vast range of symptoms that vary depending on which condition is affecting a patient. Symptoms can range from trouble speaking or swallowing to the unexpected or sudden loss of breath or ability to speak. Common symptoms of voice issues or swallowing disorders include:
- Hoarseness — Hoarseness is the product of abnormal vibration or unwanted air leaks through the vocal folds, often caused by the vocal folds not closing completely.
- Difficulty breathing or speaking — Certain vocal disorders make it hard for a person to breathe or speak.
- Trouble eating — This might mean a person has difficulty swallowing food or liquid on the first try; coughing, choking or gagging when trying to swallow; pain when swallowing; feeling like food or liquid is getting stuck in the chest or throat; and food or liquid coming back up through the throat, nose or mouth.
- Voice changes — Vocal disorders can cause a person’s voice sounds choppy, strained, strangled, gravely or weak.
- Weight loss — This symptom is often associated with eating difficulties.
These symptoms often present on a temporary basis and can be successfully managed through lifestyle changes.
Treatment plans for swallowing and voice disorders depend largely on a patient’s specific diagnosis. Although specific conditions may require more focused and specific therapy, general steps taken to treat voice and swallowing disorders may include:
- Lifestyle changes — Dietary changes, such as eating smaller meals, and other changes, such as stopping smoking or reducing stress, may be implemented to reduce the impact of voice and swallowing problems.
- Medication — Medications may be prescribed to manage underlying causes of swallowing issues, such as acid reflux.
- Speech therapy — A speech-language pathologist can help re-train muscles of the voice box and throat.
- Surgery — Surgical procedures may be conducted to remove tumors or to correct abnormalities in the throat or voice box, such as a narrow esophagus.
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