LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 27, 2013) - The following column appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader on sunday, Aug. 25.
When you think summer in the Bluegrass, you think of heat and humidity that drives many of us to seek shelter in the cool indoors. For some, outdoor activities can trigger a phenomenon known as vocal cord dysfunction.
Vocal cord dysfunction is a condition that impacts drawing in a breath. It occurs when the airway shuts or constricts when taking a breath. The vocal cords, or “folds,” are responsible for producing voice, and are housed in the larynx or “voice box.” Vocal cord dysfunction events cause difficulty breathing in, wheezing, coughing, a feeling of tightness in the throat, or stridor - a high-pitched wheezing sound.
In severe cases VCD can result in loss of consciousness.
Episodes of breathing difficulty caused by vocal cord dysfunction may be sudden and unexpected or progress gradually, and they often occur during periods of activity such as climbing the stairs, athletic competition or exercise.
Vocal cord dysfunction is often mistaken for asthma, or other upper respiratory disorders. Very often vocal cord dysfunction is initially diagnosed as exercise induced asthma; although the treatments are very different for the two. Patients will often see multiple doctors before this is correctly diagnosed.
Any person, young or old, can be at risk. In adolescents, vocal cord dysfunction is often seen in those who compete in sports or seek high levels of achievement and often affects more females than males. The exact cause of vocal cord dysfunction is not completely known, but it often includes irritants such as chemical exposure, acid reflux and changes in the temperature in your environment. Secondary factors may include physical stress or a tendency to breathe using muscles in the neck and shoulders rather than the belly.
For a reliable diagnosis, a team approach is essential. A speech language pathologist with a specialty in voice and airway disorders is key for correct diagnosis and management; which may include medications, or breathing therapy. Treatment is generally effective and can greatly improve a person’s quality of life and return to an activity that previously caused them difficulty. Treatment includes teaching behavioral breathing techniques and vocal hygiene to reduce irritation, and normally takes 3-4 sessions.
If you, or anyone you know is experiencing symptoms of difficulty breathing in, strongly consider seeking assessment for a potential case of vocal cord dysfunction, and get the appropriate treatment. Difficulty breathing can affect every aspect of your life and have a major effect on what you do and when you do it.
Rebecca L. Hancock is a senior speech pathologist at the UK Clinical Voice Center.