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What is Vocal Cord Dysfunction?

A condition occurring when vocal cords close partially or fully, most commonly during inhalation.

This closure reduces or limits airflow at the level of the vocal cords making it difficult for air to pass into the lungs and causing one to feel as if they cannot breathe.

Symptoms of Vocal Cord Dysfunction:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Sensation of choking or suffocation
  • Noisy breathing
  • Frequent cough or throat clearing

Causes of Vocal Cord Dysfunction:

  • Acid Reflux (GERD)
  • Exposure to strong odors or fumes
  • Exercise
  • Post-nasal drainage
  • Upper respiratory infection (cold)

How is Vocal Cord Dysfunction Diagnosed?

VCD is a diagnosis based on consideration of symptoms and exam findings. A healthcare provider looks at the patient’s voice box while having difficulty breathing and confirms abnormal closure of the vocal cords during inhalation. This is done by an ENT physician or a speech pathologist with an in-office procedure called laryngoscopy. Additional information is obtained from pulmonary function tests that may help delineate the type of airway obstruction and presence of any coinciding lung disease. Evaluation by a speech pathologist that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of upper airway disorders is important to add further information related to the cause of VCD and to develop a treatment plan.

How is Vocal Cord Dysfunction Treated?

VCD is different than many other breathing problems because medication is not the primary treatment to control or prevent symptoms. VCD co-occurs with asthma approximately 40% of the time. It is important to differentiate these two problems and treat them appropriately. Other triggers such as post-nasal drainage or acid reflux should be treated as well. Speech therapy is the recommended treatment for vocal cord dysfunction. Techniques are taught by a speech pathologist to relax the vocal cords and open the airway. The patient then has the tools to improve the VCD symptoms, and prevent future episodes.

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