Regaining a voice through vocal massage

May 26, 2011 6:16:15 PM PDT
With allergies in full bloom and all kinds of respiratory infections floating around, some people could be left with a hoarse voice or no voice at all.

Getting it back could be as easy as getting a massage.

For Leslie Odom, singing is more a way of life than just a hobby.

"We were raised going to concerts and singing in church," said Odom, a music teacher.

But after thyroid surgery a few years ago, she could not sing more than a note or two.

"It just started to affect me emotionally," said Odom. "I spent a lot of time crying."

Doctors said she had muscle tension dysphonia.

It happens when muscles around the voice box tighten up, causing hoarseness and voice fatigue.

"They'll complain that, 'Every time I swallow, I feel like there's something there,'" said Dr. Gaelyn Garrett of the Vanderbilt Voice Center. "'I feel like I have to [clears throat].'"

Surprisingly, one possible fix is a special massage designed just for the vocal chords.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center physical therapist Carey Tomlinson says the massage is applied directly to the throat and larynx area.

The technique manipulates bone and cartilage, allowing the vocal chords to properly align.

There are many causes for vocal problems, but what most people may not realize is that when their voice is compromised even after suffering a cold, they may try to compensate by using other tiny muscles, and that can throw things off.

"They start creating access tension, pulling the larynx upward... so the larynx massage is one of the techniques we use to get them to relax," said Gail Kempster, Ph.D., speech pathologist at Rush University Medical Center.

Kempster says there are all kinds of treatments for voice issues.

If for some reason you stop sounding like you normally do and it continues more than two weeks, she says it is time to see a physician.

"You also should inquire about whether or not voice therapy would be helpful," said Kempster. "We can do dramatic things in relatively short periods of time."

As for the massage technique, a Vanderbilt study says it helped two-thirds of patients improve. Leslie was able to find her voice again after eight weeks.

"When I started, I couldn't sing, and I couldn't talk for any length of time," she said. "Now, I can do both."

While most massages are pleasant, the vocal massage can be uncomfortable and painful, but many patients who experience success with the treatment say it is worth the trouble.

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