Vocal cord paralysis

Vocal cord paralysis occurs when the nerve impulses to your voice box (larynx) are interrupted. This results in paralysis of the muscle of the vocal cords. Vocal cord paralysis can affect your ability to speak and even breathe. That's because your vocal cords, sometimes called vocal folds, do more than just produce sound. They also protect your airway by preventing food, drink and even your saliva from entering your windpipe (trachea) and causing you to choke.

There are a number of causes of vocal cord paralysis including damage to nerves during surgery and certain cancers. Vocal cord paralysis can also be caused by a viral infection or a neurological disorder.

Treatment for vocal cord paralysis usually includes voice therapy; however, surgery is also sometimes necessary.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

Your vocal cords are two flexible bands of muscle tissue that sit at the entrance to the windpipe (trachea). When you speak, the bands come together and vibrate to make sound. The rest of the time, the vocal cords are relaxed in an open position, so you can breathe.

In most cases of vocal cord paralysis, only one vocal cord is paralyzed. If both of your vocal cords are affected, you may have vocal difficulties, as well as significant problems with breathing and swallowing.

Signs and symptoms of vocal cord paralysis may include:

  • A breathy quality to the voice
  • Hoarseness
  • Noisy breathing
  • Loss of vocal pitch
  • Choking or coughing while swallowing food, drink or saliva
  • The need to take frequent breaths while speaking
  • Inability to speak loudly
  • Loss of your gag reflex
  • Ineffective coughing
  • Frequent throat clearing

When to see a doctor

If you have unexplained, persistent hoarseness for more than three or four weeks, or if you notice any unexplained voice changes or discomfort, contact your doctor.

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