IT’S SO GOOD TO HEAR YOUR VOICE
“So the one frog says to the other frog, ‘I think I have a person in my throat.”
Just as there are no two human faces that look exactly alike, there are no two human voices that sound alike. Each of us has a uniquely personal voice, and it is a part of who we are. Voice qualities are determined by gender, age, resonance, pitch, breath support, energy levels, inflection and volume. One’s overall speech patterns are determined not only by voice, but by regional dialects, rate, fluency, articulation, and presence/absence of other physical qualities that can affect communication.
Too often, however, vocal quality is adversely affected by poor health and the habits that cause it.
Most of us don’t think twice about the ability to produce our voices. We speak without effort, and our voices simply come out. At least once in our lives, however, most of us have had at least a mild case of laryngitis, and we have temporarily lost our voice. It is only then we realize how important the human voice is.
If you have ever experienced a loss of your voice for any reason, you are in the majority. You likely felt helpless when you were not able to speak, and you likely hadn’t thought about what a gift it is to be able to produce your voice without any forethought or effort. You likely got your voice back without any effort as well. Lucky you.
It is estimated that at any given time in the United States, 6% of the general population is experiencing voice disorders. Up to 21% of Americans will experience chronic, repeated laryngitis, which is the most common voice disorder. Most of us, at one time or another—or multiple times—will experience a bout of laryngitis as a result of a cold, sinus infection, overuse, virus, injury, or other, less common causes. In most cases, it is isolated, and we regain our voice. Again, though, for that 21%, it is recurrent and chronic, likely requiring medical attention.
Most of us have heard of famous singers who have had to cancel concerts due to voice problems. They are on “vocal rest,” which is the only way to heal the problems they experience from overuse. Singers rely on their voices as their livelihood, and most of them take this advice seriously. Concerts are cancelled, rescheduled, vocal cords are healed, and the show goes on.
You have likely had a callous on your hand or your foot at some point in your life. It is caused from overuse, from another surface rubbing too hard and too frequently against the tissues of your skin. When singers experience such vocal problems as a result of overuse, it is much like when a callous forms. The surfaces of the vocal cords rub against each other with too much force, too often, and repeated again with the next song and performance. Vocal nodules are created, which are much like callouses. As you know, the only way to get rid of a callous is to give that area on you’re a skin a rest from the contact with the offending object—perhaps it is a shovel or a rake that you are not used to using. If you give it enough rest, your skin will return to normal. So too will the vocal cords with enough rest.
If you perform an online search for “video stroboscopy” you will see there are many online videos that show the function of vocal cords in action. Any source from a university clinic is likely reliable. These videos will likely show the subject holding out one sound such as “aaaaahhhhh.” You will see the vocal cords vibrating, which is caused by the air rushing up from the lungs between them, thus creating your voice.
Daniel Bernoulli was a brilliant man. So brilliant, in fact, that he had an effect named after him. The Bernoulli Effect is illustrated by this airflow, which creates the human voice. Another illustration of the Bernoulli Effect that most of us are familiar with is the airflow over and under an airplane’s wings. When these two forces meet at the back of the wing, lift is created, and the airplane takes off and stays aloft.
Physics principles are alive and well in your body every time you speak.
Like so many other incredible functions of your incredible human body, you likely take your voice for granted. It takes essentially no concentrated effort, it performs for you day in and day out and asks for nothing (much), and gives you the ability to experience a most wondrous human phenomenon: connecting with another human. Except when it doesn’t. When you experience laryngitis—which usually resolves on its own, you realize how much you rely on your vocal cords. If that is the most extreme vocal problem you ever experience, consider yourself lucky. That 21% of the population mentioned in the first paragraph has, or will, experience more complex vocal cord problems at some point in their lives.
Most voice problems—besides laryngitis—are reported simply as a “scratchy voice.” Hoarseness is also another complaint. Other difficulties people can experience with their voice are pitch breaks, whereby the normal rise and fall of one’s voice cracks in inappropriate places, or simply comes out sounding too high or too low. This is an expected part of development for teenage boys, and it typically passes when their bodies become matured.
Every breath you take goes over your vocal cords. This accounts for the scratchy, leathery voice one produces after many years of smoking. The low, raspy voice is almost unmistakable. After time, the abuse of cigarette/cigar and other types of smoke against one’s vocal cords cannot be hidden, and it is apparent in the vocal quality the speaker produces. When it comes to the voice, cigarettes don’t lie. It’s never too late to stop smoking, and the entire body—not just the vocal cords—will thank you.
Unfortunately, nearly every case of laryngeal cancer could have been prevented by not smoking. Most of us have interacted with or at least heard someone speaking with an artificial larynx, a vibrating device held to the neck to substitute for the voice when the vocal cords were removed due to cancer. There are only several other alternative modes of communication for someone who has lost their vocal cords, and none of them can restore the voice to its original beauty, clarity and function.
Smoking is clearly an abuse of the vocal cords, but many of us—smokers and non-smokers alike—abuse our voices just as we do many other muscles in our bodies. Overuse/inappropriate use of one’s voice such as yelling for prolonged periods or producing unusual sounds such as grinding one’s voice for effect can take a toll. Chronic throat clearing is another abusive habit that many people have. Ironically, most of the people who interact with this person notice it, but the guilty party does not. It can be a nervous habit, or the result of excessive throat clearing after an illness that produced phlegm and secretions that needed to be cleared. This is an uncomfortable situation, because to help that person overcome it, it needs to be brought to their attention, and that can be awkward and can cause hurt feelings if not handled carefully.
Often, children are guilty of abusing their voices. Many young children exercise their vocal cords too well, and yell during play or during competition in sports. This habit needs to be brought to their attention in order to be resolved, and it is typically easier to confront a child with this problem than an adult who has a chronic throat clear. Children in school may be able to receive direct speech therapy from the school’s speech therapist to help correct this problem, and speaking with the child’s teacher is a good first step.
Chronic voice problems should always be examined medically. A visit to your primary care practitioner is a good place to start, and you may be referred to an ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialist. Many people fear the worst, but, mercifully, many a hoarse, scratchy voice is caused by vocal nodules, which are tiny growths on the vocal cords, and are benign in nearly every case. Vocal rest is always recommended, and they can also be treated medically.
Acid reflux can also be the culprit. When stomach acids come back up into the esophagus, they can proceed up to make contact with the vocal cords. This acid can cause a burning effect on the vocal cords, and can affect the voice. Again, this is treated medically.
Sometimes, there is no cause that can be found. Voice problems can also be accompanied by a chronic cough, and when all other causes are ruled out for the cough as well, it can be as simple as this: Drink more water. Many voice problems and chronic coughing can be “cured” by simply drinking enough water. Again, when there is no medical explanation after an examination, be sure that you are consuming enough water, but always be sure to get it checked out by your doctor.
What is “enough?” The standard 8 glasses a day is good, but there is a more precise amount that is recommended by voice therapists. Because a large person—say, a 250-pound man—has more tissue to hydrate than a small, 125-pound woman who is half his size, each person’s needs are different based on body mass and size.
In order to determine the ideal amount, simply divide your body weight in half, and strive to drink that many ounces. This likely sounds daunting to most people, but anything closer to that goal versus what you are drinking now is a step in the right direction. This is good advice for general wellness too, as our bodies are made primarily of water, and require continued hydration to replenish themselves and remain healthy, or return to health.
Many people feel that any fluid will suffice, and some sources say it will, but voice experts will affirm that, indeed, the human body is made of water, not juice, tea, coffee or soda. Therefore, water is the ideal liquid to ensure vocal health. Those beverages are enjoyable for many people and should not be avoided altogether, but should not be substituted for water.
The human voice is part of the incredible process of communication. At the moment a baby is born, the parents, doctors and nurses want to hear the voice in the form of a cry. Speech comes much later, but from birth, we are using our voice to let everyone know we have indeed arrived. When we are with a loved one at the moment they leave this earth, we hope to hear their voice one last time, leaving us with words we will treasure.
Take care of your voice, it’s the only one you will ever have.