One of the simplest joys in life is being able to talk with loved ones and share our stories with others. When the voice becomes impaired, whether through a neurological disease or simply through overuse, we truly become aware of just how much of a gift being able to speak is. Our vocal cords have three very important roles: they protect our airway, regulate our breathing and produce sounds for speech. These cords (also called folds) are essentially a pair of rubber band-like tissues composed of muscle and mucosa (an elastic layer). Their ability to vibrate is a complex result of using our breath as well as contractions within muscles in the larynx attached to cartilages. Here are 7 tips for keeping those areas healthy and happy:
1. Warm up your voice regularly: Would you go for a run without stretching your legs? Our vocal cords need warming up too, especially if we have a job or a day where we will be talking more than usual. A simple warm up can be ten minutes of humming. It’s a gentle way to get those vocal cords vibrating. Try alternating your pitch while humming. When you go into your higher pitch, you are giving those vocal cords a nice stretch. As you go lower in pitch, the vocal cords relax.
2. Stay flexible: Tight muscles can create a variety of problems. Did you know they can contribute to vocal fatigue? When one muscle gets tight or injured, the muscles around it have to compensate. This can lead to a domino effect of tight muscles in your body. Your neck and shoulders are prone to tightness and can lead to further tightening of muscles within the larynx. Try doing shoulder and head rolls along with your morning voice warm up. Yoga is also a great way to keep the whole body flexible!
3. Nutrition: This is one of the most important things to work on when it comes to your overall health, as well as voice. A healthy gut will support a healthy voice. If your gut is not healthy, it can lead to acid reflux which will wreak havoc on your food pipe and vocal cords if not controlled. If you find your voice gets hoarse often, acid reflux could be playing a role. At least 40% of people with reflux do not experience heartburn, so this can be going on for a while undetected until more serious symptoms arise. Avoid processed foods (typically bought in a box or a bag) and refined carbohydrates (white bread, cakes, cookies). If you are experiencing increased mucus, or a phlegmy voice, try avoiding or cutting back on dairy and sugar while boosting up your water intake.
4. Hydration: Water thins your mucus and lubricates your vocal cords; much like oil lubricates a car engine. Thick mucus can increase friction when your vocal cords come together and have damaging effects. Drink up to 8-10 glasses (64 ounces or more) of pure water every day (no added sugar).
5. Avoid throat clearing: Frequent throat clearing is very damaging to the vocal cords. It’s like slamming a door shut over and over until the hinges come loose and the frame gets all scratched up. Frequent throat clearing is often seen with people that have allergies, reflux or other sinus conditions. And a fun fact, reflux can actually create sinus conditions! When you lay down to sleep each night, that reflux can travel all the way up to the nose and sinus linings resulting in a hoarse and even phlegmy voice when you wake up. Try replacing your throat clearing habit with either a sip of water or silently clearing your throat without allowing your vocal cords to touch.
6. Exercise: Just 20 minutes of exercise a day can go a long way, even if it’s just a brisk walk. Your blood needs to circulate and take in oxygen. This helps maintain many necessary functions in your body, including keeping those vocal cords healthy.
7. Good air: Your vocal cords need moisture. For those living in humid places like Florida you get that on almost any given day just by stepping outside! Sometimes, your work environment or even home can be a very stale and dry environment that is not very friendly to your nasal passages and vocal cords. Ideally, you want around 30-50% humidity in your work or home. A small humidifier can be helpful if you are at a desk job or even by your bed at night if your inside air is making you too dry. Needless to say, smoking is one of the worst things you can do to your voice and can lead to cancer of the larynx. A smoky or dry environment should be avoided as it pulls moisture away from the mucosa in your vocal folds and can lead to chronic laryngitis and vocal cord polyps.
These are just 7 helpful tips for promoting a healthy voice and preventing damage. If you are already experiencing problems with your voice it’s important to get a good diagnosis for what your underlying problem is. This may mean seeing an Otolaryngologist (also referred to as ENT for Ear, Nose and Throat doctor), a neurologist and/or a Gastrointestinal (GI) doctor. An ENT is a great place to start as they will assess your anatomical structures from the neck up for any abnormalities impacting your voice and look at how your vocal folds are coming together. They can also make appropriate referrals to other medical specialists based on their findings. Once you’ve pinpointed the source of your problem, you will most likely benefit from working with a qualified Speech-Language Pathologist (also referred to as Speech Therapist). Make sure your therapist has a background in voice disorders. Don’t be afraid to use that voice of yours to ask questions and insure you get matched up with a doctor and Speech Therapist that is right for you.