Vocal Cords and Voice Disorders

What are vocal cords?

The vocal cords (also known as vocal folds) are two elastic bands of muscle tissue and ligaments covered with a mucus membrane (mucosa). They are located in the larynx, or voice box, directly above the trachea (windpipe). The vocal cords produce the sound of your voice when air held in the lungs is released and passed through the closed vocal cords, causing them to vibrate. When you are not speaking, the vocal cords remain apart to allow you to breathe.

Vocal cord problems


Dysphonia is defined as any abnormality of the voice. It may be caused by:

  • Lesions on the vocal cords
  • Problems moving the vocal cords, or vocal cord paralysis
  • Spasms or spasmodic dysphonia is a voice disorder characterized by intermittent, involuntary spasms of the muscles of the larynx while talking or making any kind of vocal sound.
  • Overuse, emotional stress, trauma or illness such as laryngitis

The most commonly used word to describe an abnormal voice is hoarseness. However, hoarseness is a general term that may not have the same meaning to all who use it. We often use the word hoarse to describe any voice abnormality. Laryngologists prefer to be more specific, using words such as harsh, breathy, rough, strained or pressed.

Vocal cord nodules

People who use their voices a great deal, such as professional singers, teachers, auctioneers, lecturers, and members of the clergy, are prone to have nodules on their vocal cords. A vocal cord nodule is a small, inflammatory or fibrous growth that develops on the vocal cords of people who constantly strain their voices.

A nodule is a growth of the epithelium (mucous membrane). It’s similar in structure to a corn on a toe or a callus on the hand. If one has vocal cord nodules, the voice will become breathy and hoarse. Resting the vocal cords by allowing little or no speaking for several weeks may permit the nodules to shrink. Children occasionally have screamer's vocal cord nodules and these can be treated by voice therapy alone.

If surgery is necessary, nodules are removed with direct laryngoscopy. During this procedure, a metal tube with a light on the end of it is inserted in the throat while the patient is under general anesthesia (asleep). The nodule is removed using tiny instruments, including cups, scissors and knives. The removed tissue is sent to a pathologist to rule out cancer. Surgery should be followed by voice therapy to correct the underlying cause.

Vocal cord polyps

A vocal cord polyp is a small swelling in the mucous membranes covering the vocal cords. As they grow, they take on a rounded shape. They may run the whole length of the vocal cords or be localized. Polyps can develop from:

  • Chronic inhalation of irritants (like industrial fumes and cigarette smoke)
  • Chronic laryngeal allergic reactions
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Voice abuse

Polyps can make your voice become breathy-sounding and harsh. Your physician may recommend indirect laryngoscopy to examine your vocal cords.

Other vocal cord problems and voice disorders

There are a variety of disorders that can affect the voice and throat. Henry Ford Laryngologists are trained to provide care for:

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