Medical Minute 5-19: Massage Vocal Cords Back to Life

By: Ramin Khalili Email
By: Ramin Khalili Email

For Leslie Odom, singing is more a way of life than just a hobby. She's got a degree in music, teaches it to school kids - and sings in a church group, too. Music's always been her inspiration.

"I guess I've had some really down times…and it gives me hope," she said.

But when Leslie had thyroid surgery a few years ago, the music stopped. She couldn't sing more than a note or two, and even had to quit her church group.

"Someone who loved music as much as she did, it was hard to see that happen to her." "It just started to affect me emotionally. I spent a lot of time crying," said Roseann Norwood.

Doctors said she had muscle tension dysphonia. It happens when muscles around voice box tighten up - causing hoarse-ness and voice fatigue.

"They'll complain that every time I swallow, I feel like there's something there. I feel like I have to [clears throat]," said Gaelyn Garrett, M.D., Professor and Medical Director Vanderbilt Voice Center.

Treatment used to mean speech therapy, but doctors now use a massage designed just for the vocal chords.

"We're applying it directly to the throat, the larynx area," said Carey Tomlinson Physical Therapist Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Physical therapist Carey Tomlinson performs a myofascial release. Here, she separates the hy-oid bone - between the chin and neck - from thyroid cartilage below … allowing the vocal chords to properly align.

"So what we're trying to do is get the big muscles around the neck.")

A Vanderbilt study says this technique helped two-thirds of patients improve. And while it's often uncomfortable and painful, Leslie did find her voice again after 8 weeks.

"When I started, I couldn't sing, and I couldn't talk for any length of time. Now, I can do both."

She's now hitting notes she hasn't touched since she was a teen, and the results: Are crystal clear.

For more information on other series produced by Ivanhoe Broadcast News contact John Cherry at (407) 691-1500,


MUSCLE TENSION DYSPHONIA: It takes the interaction of 72 different muscles to produce human speech, so it’s little wonder that sometimes, something can go wrong. Muscle tension dysphonia is just one of the ways a person can be left without a voice. It’s most often seen in people with jobs that require a lot of talking: professors, lawyers, or call-center workers, among others. People suffering from muscle tension dysphonia may speak in a lower register and have a husky, raspy voice.

WHAT IS MUSCLE TENSION DYSPHONIA? Muscle tension dysphonia is different from patient to patient, and theories about its exact nature are varied. Some believe it is an incomplete relaxation or excessive contraction of the muscles in the larynx. Other theories say it’s an issue of timing: muscle tension dysphonia is a lack of coordination of breathing and laryngeal muscle contraction. Regardless of the exact way it affects one’s voice, muscle tension dysphonia results in impaired vocal fold vibration and the feeling of extra effort when speaking.

WHAT CAUSES MUSCLE TENSION DYSPHONIA? The exact cause of muscle tension dysphonia is also unclear. Doctors believe it is the result of the body reacting to some combination of internal and external irritants, such as:

• Upper respiratory infections
• Second-hand smoke
• Laryngopharyngeal reflux (acid reflux disease that affects the voice production system)
• Heavy vocal demands
• Stressful life events

VOCAL MASSAGE TO RELIEVE MUSCLE TENSION DYSPHONIA: Recent studies have shown vocal massage combined with voice therapy can help people with muscle tension dysphonia. In most cases, massage of the throat, neck, or upper back will help relax overly contracted muscles and relieve the symptoms of muscle tension dysphonia. One exercise consists of the massage therapist separating the thyroid cartilage from the hyoid bone (the bone where the chin meets the neck) in order to help vocal folds relax. In some cases, the patient may be asked to hum or produce other sounds during the therapy.

 For More Information, Contact:

Craig Boerner
National News Director
Vanderbilt University Medical Center

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