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Vocal Cord Dysfunction

What is Vocal Cord Dysfunction?

Breathing is something we usually do not think about because our bodies normally control this process without our help. It is automatic. When we breathe in (inhale) our vocal cords open (see picture A). The air we breathe in flows through the vocal cords, into the windpipe (trachea) and into the lungs. Then we breathe air out of the lungs, through the windpipe and open vocal cords. Airway Diagram

Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD) is a condition in which the vocal cords are pulled towards each other, closing or narrowing the space for the air to flow into the windpipe. There are times when the vocal cords should close, such as when speaking or swallowing (See picture B). VCD occurs when the vocal cords are pulled together at the wrong time.

Symptoms of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Symptoms of VCD vary for each person and may occur suddenly. The following list includes some common signs and symptoms. Put a check by any that you may have experienced:

  • Difficulty breathing, especially breathing air in
  • Tight throat
  • Wheezing
  • Noisy breathing
  • Frequent coughing
  • Barky cough
  • Laryngitis
  • Hoarse or different voice quality
  • Breathy voice or breaks in voice
  • Choking sensation
  • Dry or sore throat
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Burning sensation in the chest of throat
  • Rapid shallow breathing

Although these symptoms may happen with VCD they are also seen in many common conditions. Always ask your primary care provider if you have questions.

Causes of Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Tension in the vocal cords and the surrounding muscles causes the vocal cords to tighten. There is not one cause for Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD). There are many triggers and conditions that can cause you to experience VCD.

VCD can occur alone or along with asthma. Many of the triggers for asthma can also be triggers for VCD. Put a check by any that trigger your symptoms.

  • Exercise or physical activity
  • Stress, anxiety or any strong emotion (anger, frustration, excitement)
  • Asthma attacks
  • Perfumes or strong odors
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Indoor or outdoor irritants or pollution
  • Chemical exposure
  • Viruses
  • Sinus congestion and infections
  • Upper respiratory infections
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux)
  • Singing or shouting

Treatments for Vocal Cord Dysfunction

With your help, your VCD treatment team will develop a plan to help you to identify and control VCD symptoms. The team may suggest further evaluation to help develop a therapy plan, especially if you also have asthma. Once the team helps you to identify what might cause your VCD symptoms they can suggest strategies to help control it.

Since VCD is different for each person, the people who make up the VCD treatment team will vary. A speech pathologist and psychologist will likely play key roles in your therapy and will work closely with other professionals on your team.