Voice :: Voice problems can signal serious health issues

Hoarseness, difficulty speaking and a change in the pitch or quality of your voice are often signs of a voice disorder. These problems not only interfere with your ability to communicate, but they may also indicate more serious health issues.

“There are three major functions of the larynx (voice box)—breathing, swallowing and producing sound,” says Keith Wilson, MD, professor of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) and director of head and neck surgery.

“The inability to effectively communicate because of voice problems can affect a person’s quality of life, especially for someone who’s a lawyer, teacher, singer or a preacher, but it’s not life-threatening,” says Wilson.

What is life-threatening, he says, are voice problems that are a symptom of larger health issues, like those involving breathing and swallowing.

Difficulties with voice and swallowing can stem from conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, lung disease, gastrointestinal or laryngopharyngeal reflux diseases, or surgery to the neck or chest that damages a vocal cord nerve, among other causes.

“Many people don’t realize the connection between the voice and basic, necessary human functions like breathing and swallowing,” says Wilson. “This important connection is one reason we’ve established an interdisciplinary voice and swallowing center.”

The University Swallowing and Voice Center is a collaboration of specialists in otolaryngology, speech pathology, neurology, gastroenterology, pulmonary medicine and radiology. The experts work together to diagnose and treat patients with voice and swallowing disorders.

In addition, the center has added equipment that allows doctors to perform some procedures in the office that previously needed to be scheduled in the hospital operating room.

“Operating room procedures generally take three to five hours of a patient’s time,” says Wilson. “Patients have to check in an hour or two before their scheduled procedure, the procedure itself may take up to an hour or so, and then there’s recovery time.”

At the new center, says Wilson, a patient can be evaluated by a physician who will develop a treatment plan and perform a procedure, if necessary, all during one visit.

“A classic example,” he says, “may be someone with paralyzed vocal cords who is experiencing problems swallowing. In some cases we can now administer an injection to treat the cords right in the office rather than scheduling the procedure in the operating room—saving patients time and often providing immediate relief.”

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