The vocal cords are used to breathe, talk, and swallow. They serve as a valve at the top of the windpipe. They open widely to allow air to pass into the lungs and close tightly to protect our airway when we swallow. Pushing air through the vocal cords when they are closed produces vibrations that we ultimately shape into our voice. Damage to the nerves that send signals to the vocal cords can result from trauma or surgeries in our neck or chest, tumors along the course of the nerves, or even bad infections. When one of the cords is paralyzed, it sits in a position that is in between opened and closed. It doesn't open when you breathe or fully close when you try to cough, swallow, or use your voice.
Related Blog: Vocal Cord Paralysis and Spasmodic Dysphonia
Vocal cord paralysis shows up most dramatically in the voice. Your voice may sound weak or breathy. You may only be able to say a few words before you take another breath and you may get tired quickly when you are trying to talk. The voice often sounds like a whisper, or sometimes even very high-pitched like a cartoon character. Swallowing becomes difficult as well, and you might cough or choke when you take a drink.
The good news is that vocal cord paralysis does not have to be a permanent affliction. Many cases will recover on their own in a matter of a few months. In the short term, while you await recovery, patients can get relief from their symptoms with a simple office-based injection procedure to help push the vocal cord closer to the center and restore good, strong closure during speaking and swallowing. There are also surgical procedures that can restore function to the vocal system in the event that the paralysis is in fact permanent. The most common procedure is called medialization laryngoplasty. Both the short term and permanent procedures restore the power and projection to your voice and allow you to speak without feeling out of breath. They also provide you with a safer way to drink and a more effective cough.
Medialization laryngoplasty (reconstruction of the voice box or vocal cords) will help to restore the function of the larynx by moving the paralyzed cord to the middle. This allows the non-paralyzed fold to move back and forth to make up the difference. You will notice your functions mostly restored, though there may still be some limitations.
As mentioned above, this procedure can take place via office-based injection or surgical implant. If you are interested in learning more about this procedure or vocal cord paralysis, contact The Silverstein Institute.