Spasmodic Dysphonia

What is spasmodic dysphonia?

Spasmodic dysphonia is a voice disorder. It causes involuntary spasms in the muscles of the voice box or larynx.  This causes the voice to break, and have a tight, strained, or strangled sound. 

Spasmodic dysphonia can cause problems ranging from trouble saying a word or two to being not able to talk at all.

Spasmodic dysphonia is a life-long condition. It most often affects women, particularly between the ages of 30 and 50.

There are 3 types of spasmodic dysphonia:

  • Adductor spasmodic dysphonia. This is the most common type. It causes sudden involuntary spasms that trigger the vocal cords to stiffen and slam closed. The spasms interfere with vibration of the vocal cords and with making sound. Stress can make spasms worse. Speech sounds are strained and full of effort. Spasms don't happen when whispering, laughing, singing, speaking at a high pitch, or speaking while breathing in.

  • Abductor spasmodic dysphonia. This type causes sudden involuntary spasms that trigger the vocal cords to open. Vibration can’t happen when cords are open so making sound is difficult. Also, the open position lets air escape during speech. Speech sounds are weak, quiet, and whispery. Spasms don't happen when laughing or singing.

  • Mixed spasmodic dysphonia. This is a mix of symptoms of both types of dysphonia.

What causes spasmodic dysphonia?

The exact cause of spasmodic dysphonia is not known. A nervous system disorder is thought to cause most cases. They may happen along with other movement disorders. Researchers think it may be caused by a problem in the basal ganglia of the brain. This is the area that helps coordinate muscle movement. Spasmodic dysphonia may be inherited. It may start after a cold or the flu, injury to the voice box, a long period of voice use, or stress.

What are the symptoms of spasmodic dysphonia?

Symptoms of spasmodic dysphonia vary depending on whether the spasms cause the vocal cords to close or to open. Speech that is strained or difficult, weak, quiet, or whispery, may be due to spasmodic dysphonia.

How is spasmodic dysphonia diagnosed?

A speech-language pathologist may test voice production and quality. An otolaryngologist, a healthcare provider who specializes in the ear, nose, and throat, can diagnose the disorder. Along with a complete medical history and physical exam, checking the vocal folds using fiberoptic nasolaryngoscopy may be done. This involves using a lighted tube, passed through the nose into the voice box to check movement of the vocal folds during speech. A neurologist may check for underlying neurological problems.

How is spasmodic dysphonia treated?

The goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms of the disorder. Surgery to cut one of the nerves of the vocal fold has been used. Injecting botulinum toxin directly into the affected muscles of the voice box has had some success. Speech therapy is also a key part of treatment.

Living with spasmodic dysphonia

Difficulty speaking can cause stress. Counseling may help you learn to cope. Support groups can help with the process. If speech is very hard or impossible, other devices can aid communication. Technological advances include computer software or cell phone apps that can translate text into speech.

Work with your speech-language pathologist, otolaryngologist, or neurologist to develop the best treatment for your needs.

Key points about spasmodic dysphonia

  • Spasmodic dysphonia is a voice disorder that makes talking difficult.

  • It is characterized by involuntary spasms of the voice box.

  • Specialists, such as speech-language pathologists, otolaryngologists, and neurologists, should be part of your medical team.

  • The goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms and aid communication.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.