Common Causes of Voice Disorders

Apr 14, 2023
Common Causes of Voice Disorders
Most people expect a raspy or whispery voice when they have a cold. But should you worry if your voice is suddenly softer, hoarser, or otherwise different than it once was? Read what our specialist says about common causes of voice disorders.

Voice disorders affect your voice's pitch, volume, tone, and overall quality. Numerous issues can cause a voice disorder, from throat irritation and chronic inflammation to nerve dysfunction.

Ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Phillip T. Ho at Silicon Valley ENT & Sinus Center in Los Gatos, California, explains symptoms and underlying causes of voice disorders.

Understanding how your voice happens

Your voice patterns, controlled by vocal cords within the larynx (voice box), are uniquely yours. Unlike the guitar strings you may imagine, vocal cords are folds of muscular tissue attached to cartilage and other muscles in the voice box.

Sitting just above a tube-like structure (the trachea, or windpipe) that allows air to flow to and from the lungs, vocal cords open wide when you inhale or exhale. When you swallow, your vocal cords close tightly to prevent substances from entering the trachea.

The cords also come together when you speak, whisper, sing, etc. Vibrations caused by puffs of air slipping up past the cords from the windpipe produce your voice. Depending on how high or low your voice is (pitch), the muscular folds may vibrate hundreds of times in a second.

Vocal cords are about ¼ inch (6-8 mm) long at birth, lengthening and thickening as you grow. Generally, the thicker the cords, the deeper your voice, which varies from one person to another.

What is a voice disorder?

Characterized by problems with voice quality such as tone, volume, or pitch, voice disorders occur when the vocal cords don’t vibrate normally.

Common symptoms of voice disorders include:

  • Quivering, trembling, or shaky voice
  • Rough, harsh, or hoarse voice
  • Changes in pitch, making the voice sound higher or deeper than usual
  • Feeling as if it’s a strain to speak
  • Throat pain when speaking
  • Whispery or breathy voice

You may experience temporary symptoms after an upper respiratory illness or social activity such as cheering at a sporting event. However, Dr. Ho recommends scheduling a visit if symptoms of voice strain don’t resolve after 10-14 days, and sooner if they worsen rather than improve.

What causes voice disorders?

Numerous conditions can affect the way your vocal cords function; some of the more common are:

Inflammation and swelling

Upper respiratory illnesses, voice overuse, allergies, chronic nasal congestion, and acid reflux can irritate and inflame the vocal cords, resulting in chronic voice changes. Smoking, excess alcohol use, and even frequent whispering can also cause vocal cord swelling.

Nerve dysfunction

Nerve signals transmitted from the brain control movement of your vocal cords. Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, myasthenia gravis, and other chronic nervous system disorders can affect vocal cord movement. Chronic inflammation (laryngitis) and adverse effects of a stroke can also affect the way your vocal cords move.

Hormone imbalance

Thyroid disorders, male and female hormone imbalances, and using growth hormones can cause problems with your voice.

Polyps, nodules, or other growths

Fluid-filled cysts, polyps, wart-like papillomas, and calluses (nodules) can form on the vocal cords and alter voice quality. These growths may develop from chronic illness, voice overuse, or cancer.   

Schedule an evaluation with Dr. Ho at Silicon Valley ENT & Sinus Center today for diagnosis and treatment of voice disorders or other conditions we treat. Call the office or request an appointment online.