Are you a professional voice user?
Before you say no, take a minute and think about it.
“Most people think about professional vocalists being singers, performers or newscasters,” said Dr. Gregory Postma, director and vice chairman of the Augusta University Center for Voice and Swallowing Disorders. “But anyone who uses their voice as a key to their employment is a professional voice user.”
This includes those working in front desk operations, customer service, sales, education and the ministry. Even physicians, dentists, managers and anyone who interacts with the public could find their job made much more difficult if they weren’t able to use their voice effectively.
“There is a large spectrum of professional voices out there, which is why being able to take care of your voice and knowing when to seek an evaluation is so critical,” added Postma.
Most of us take our ability to speak for granted—until a problem happens. Vocal health can change over time as we age and as we change jobs and use our voices more or less.
Often the first sign that something may be going on with your voice is hoarseness. “We tell people that any unexplained hoarseness for three weeks or more is cause for an evaluation,” said Postma.
A bout of the flu or a cold can make you lose your voice for a while. That’s normal. But it’s that ongoing unexplained hoarseness that could mean a larger problem impacting your vocal health for the long term.
Along with a change in the quality of your voice, you can ask yourself if you have these other signs:
- Does it take more effort to get words out?
- Is your voice giving out on you later in the day?
- Is your voice cracking or becoming higher or lower pitched?
- Do you have any physical discomfort when using your voice?
These kinds of changes can happen over time if you’re a big voice user or they can happen if you overuse your voice over a short period of time—say if you’re upset that a certain university football team didn’t win a national championship. “We saw a lot of people with vocal discomfort after hollering for the Bulldogs at the end of the college football season,” said Postma.
Protecting Your Assets
So any of us can benefit from some good general practices to protect our voices, said Postma.
Hydration is one of the best things we can do to help our vocal cords vibrate properly. So drink plenty of water, which can also help reduce excessive throat clearing or coughing, both of which can strain the vocal cords.
If you work in a profession where you must project your voice to groups of people, use amplification to help your voice do its job. Teachers, ministers, cheerleaders and fitness instructors all fall in this category. Do your best to not yell, scream or shout excessively. “We tell people to just talk normally,” said Postma. “We also advise people not to whisper as whispering in fact is harder on your voice than speaking in a normal tone.”
Take the time to simply not talk. When athletes are training for a marathon or other big event, they know when their body just needs to have a break. So instead of running 10 miles, they might turn to a stationary bike for their workout that day. “In the same way, it’s important to listen to your voice and rest it if you feel vocal fatigue,” said Postma.
Anyone who travels on airplanes frequently, stays in hotel rooms, or lives or works in an environment where the air is dry should also look into using a humidifier. “It’s advised that anyone who talks or sings for a living doesn’t talk on an airplane unless they have to,” said Postma. “The air on planes has about 8 to 12 percent humidity—it’s literally like the Arizona desert.” Just be sure to follow manufacturer’s instructions on how to clean and maintain your humidifier to avoid mold growth.
Be aware that certain medications like diuretics, antihistamines and some heart and hypertension drugs can also dry you out.
Good Vocal Health As We Age
As we grow older, our risk of throat and other voice-related cancers goes up—as does simple vocal chord atrophy due to aging-associated muscle and tissue loss. “It’s just like your biceps,” said Postma. “Unless you’re working hard and lifting weights, you tend to lose muscle bulk from age 50 on—and that includes the muscles of the vocal cords.”
Which is why an evaluation by an ENT surgeon, if you have voice changes, is so important. “Most older patients are worried that they might have a cancer or have had a small stroke. But the most common reason for unexplained hoarseness over the age of 50 is vocal cord atrophy, which very often can be treated with speech therapy,” said Postma.
A speech-language pathologist can work with patients on specific exercises to help strengthen the vocal cords, everything from pitch glides (similar to exercises singers do to warm up) to movements to strengthen the neck muscles.
But getting that evaluation as soon as you hear a problem in your voice can also help catch a cancer much earlier—which often will mean a 99 percent cure rate with just a surgery, versus waiting a year and experiencing a 20 percent cure rate, with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, as well as the risk of losing your voice box.
“Voice disorders are more common than you might think, and vocal health is a general measure of your overall well-being,” said Postma. “While we may not realize how critical our voices are until we have a problem, being seen early can mean a great chance of avoiding a chronic problem with your voice.”