Hey Readers! I am so happy you are here! In addition to personal training and teaching yoga, I am also a licensed and certified speech-language pathologist (aka SLP, speech therapist). Among other things, SLPs work work with voice, identifying and treating voice disorders. Unfortunately, voice production and vocal health is commonly neglected by most people, including wellness professionals. However, appropriate vocal health behaviors are absolutely essential for optimal functioning of your voice.
But, you might be thinking, "I don't use my voice for my job, so why does vocal health apply to me?" Well, unless you are a nonverbal communicator, you use your voice all day, every day to talk, laugh, cry, yell, and more. So, even if you don't use your voice specifically for your job (e.g. teaching, coaching, podcasting, etc.), vocal hygiene still applies to YOU. And, if you DO use your voice for your job, then vocal health is even more important for you because your job, and income, rely on your voice.
In today's blog post, I will go over basic anatomy and physiology of verbal communication, voice disorders as a result of vocal abuse, and evidence-based activities that you can do regularly to prevent vocal disease and to keep your voice running optimally. Please note, the information presented in this blog post is merely a generic overview of human voice production. The actual amount of information that exists on voice production is quite vast and complex. Many SLPs and voice teachers dedicate their entire careers to working only with voice. If you are interested in more in-depth information, please reach out to me, and I can refer you to more resources.
How is Voice Produced in the Adult Human
There are actually three subsystems that work together to create human speech, all under the guidance of the nervous system. Speech production actually begins with the respiratory system. The respiratory system includes the lungs, airways, diaphragm, intercostals (i.e. the muscles between the ribs), and other accessory breathing muscles (e.g. traps, pecs, etc.). Most languages on the planet are spoken on the exhalation (i.e. known as "egressive language"), meaning that our spoken words come out as carbon dioxide (CO2) slowly exits the lungs (for more information on general breathing physiology click here). But, in order for CO2 to be able to exit the lungs, you have to have first breathed oxygen (O2) into the lungs. No air in the lungs equals no voice production. Similarly, the more air you breathe into your lungs, the longer (and louder) you can speak before needing to breathe in again.
Moving a little north in the body, the second subsystem responsible for speech production is the phonatory system, which consists of the larynx (i.e. voice box) and all the muscles attaching to, and within, it. The larynx, or voice box, is a cartilaginous tube in the anterior (i.e. towards the front of the body) neck, deep to (i.e. below) the thyroid gland. The larynx sits directly on top of the trachea, and its primary function is ventilation - i.e. allowing air to pass freely between the lungs and the outside world. The larynx also has two secondary functions, including both airway protection during swallowing AND voice production. During normal swallowing, the larynx closes off the entrance to the trachea, thereby channeling food and liquid into the esophagus, which sits just posterior to, or behind, the trachea. During voice production, various muscles within the larynx work to produce the sound that ultimately becomes speech. The vocal folds (aka vocal cords), which are made up primarily of skeletal muscle, vibrate together to provide the sound source needed for speech production. Other muscles within the larynx either contract (shorten) or lengthen (stretch) to modulate the pitch and loudness of speech production.
Continuing the journey northward, we now come to the third subsystem for speech, which is the articulatory system. This subsystem includes all the muscles of the face, including the jaw, cheek, tongue, and soft palate muscles. As the sound leaves the larynx, it moves up into the mouth or nasal cavity, where the sound gets modified acoustically into various speech sounds that we all understand as spoken communication.
So basically, the respiratory system provides the POWER for speech production. The phonatory system provides the SOUND SOURCE. And, the articulatory system is the SOUND SHAPER, modifying the sound source into understandable words and sentences.
Voice Disorders from Vocal Abuse/Misuse
Voice disorders occur when a speaker's vocal pitch, loudness, and/or quality differs significantly from other members of the same age, gender, and cultural background. Voice disorders as a result of abuse/misuse occur when an individual does not use his/her voice correctly nor cares for his/her voice adequately. This can include misuse/abuse in the respiratory system, phonatory system, and/or articulatory system. If any one of the subsystems of speech production is not working quite right, the entire system gets off balance, affecting the quality of your voice, and in some rare cases, eliminating your voice all together.
Your speech subsystems are just like the rest of your musculoskeletal system - they contain bones, cartilage, joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia. And just like when you misuse or abuse your larger muscles, such as your hamstrings for instance, your vocal system can also suffer consequences. Similar to the rest of your body, the muscles and tissues in your speech subsystems need to be adequately stretched, moved, and rested. If the muscles, tissues, and joints of your speech subsystems are not moved regularly, through their full range of motion (ROM), they can become weakened and/or too tight, limiting future movement in these, and other, areas. Also, if the speech musculature is not adequately rested, it can lead to overuse injuries in these tissues, just like the rest of the body. The muscles and tissues that produce speech also can develop trigger points that can often be alleviated through self-myofascial release (SMR - for more information on SMR click here).
If you neglect to care for the body parts that produce speech, you can seriously damage your voice, sometimes permanently. Self-care for the speech subsystems is absolutely ESSENTIAL if you wish to continue being a verbal communicator. And y'all, I really mean this. People have suffered long-lasting, negative consequences from neglecting their voice. If you use your voice professionally, vocal care is even more important for you. Because, if you lose your voice, you might not be able to work. So, how should you regularly care for your voice subsystems? Read on to find out!
Caring for Your Respiratory System
Since the respiratory system is basically the foundation for speech production, it is super important to take care of this system, or you will not be able to produce any spoken communication at all.
One of the best things you can do for optimal voice functioning is to practice, and use, diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes called "belly breathing." I actually wrote an in-depth blog series about this type of breath pattern, so please refer to my earlier post for more detailed information (click here). But, in general, diaphragmatic breathing involves using your diaphragm (your primary breathing muscle) to its fullest range of motion (ROM). If your diaphragm doesn't move with an appropriate ROM, you simply will not be able to take in a deep enough breath to support your voice for speaking. This can cause you to increase the tension in your chest and neck muscles in order to force your larynx to do its job of creating sound. And when neck and chest muscles get tight, it can really affect the quality of your voice and breath, place nearby joints out of alignment, and possibly lead to tension headaches. Diaphragmatic breathing is by far the most efficient breath pattern for voice production, especially if you use your voice professionally. And while the diaphragm is partially under autonomic, or involuntary control (click here to read more about the autonomic nervous system), it is also under somatic, or voluntary control. That means that you can voluntarily change your breathing and train your diaphragm muscle to move with better mobility, just like you can train the other muscles in your body.
In addition to training your diaphragm to move with better efficiency, you should also regularly engage in mobility work for the rib cage and intercostal muscles - i.e. the muscles between the ribs that elevate and depress the rib cage during respiration. If the intercostals become rigid with reduced ROM, not only will your breath and voice suffer, but it will also be difficult to perform everyday movements that involve your trunk, such as lifting your arms overhead to grab something. Self-myofascial rolling (SMR) with the coregeous ball on the rib cage is very effective at reducing tension and increasing ROM in the intercostal muscles. Also, moving your trunk and arms in various dynamic stretches (e.g. side-bending, trunk rotation, etc.) is another great way to open up the intercostal muscles for more efficient movement.
Since the diaphragm and rib cage attach to parts of the spine, it is also important to regularly take your spine through its full ROM. Your spine essentially moves in six different directions - side-bending left and right; forward and backward bending; and rotating, or twisting, left and right. Taking your spine through all six of these motions on a regular basis is an excellent way to keep all of your spinal muscles and joints mobile and fluid. For more information on spinal rotation, please refer to my earlier blog post on this topic (click here).
Lastly, caring for your respiratory system also includes engaging in regular physical activity. Cardiorespiratory training (e.g. jogging, hiking, etc.) is a great way to improve the capacity of the lungs, allowing your breath to flow easier for speech production (click here to read more about cardiorespiratory training). Core strengthening exercises are also great tools to keep your trunk stable and strong. If your core muscles (e.g. abdominals, back muscles) are strong and stable, they can more easily support your trunk, which allows your diaphragm and lungs to expand with great ROM and efficiency, supporting a healthier voice. Example core-strengthening exercises include planks (and all the varieties therein), balance training (e.g. yoga poses, BOSU ball exercises), cobra/locust poses, and more.
Caring for Your Phonatory System
Self-care for the phonatory system is super important for the functioning of your larynx. Your larynx, or voice box, contains several cartilaginous joints and small skeletal muscles that work together to produce the sound source for speech production. Just like the rest of the joints and muscles in your body, your laryngeal muscles need to be exercised as well.
One of the best evidence-based activities you can do to care for your larynx is Vocal Function Exercises (VFEs). VFEs are a series of voicing exercises that take the speech muscles through their full ROM, helping to restore balance among the three speech subsystems. One VFE includes holding out the vowel sound /i/ (as in "see") for as long as you can before taking a breath, but without straining your neck muscles. Another VFE involves saying the word "whoop," moving from a low pitch to a very high pitch, and vice versa. If you are interested in learning more about VFEs, reach out to me and I can give you more information.
In addition to regularly exercising your laryngeal muscles via VFEs, it is also wise to engage in mobility work for the neck and upper back. Your cervical (neck) spine is also capable of the same six movements described above, so try to regularly take your neck through side-bending, rotating, and forward/backward bending, moving gently and without tension. SMR on the neck (with a very soft tool, such as the coregeous ball), is a great way to reduce tension in the neck muscles. And, SMR using Yoga Tune Up original therapy balls on the upper trapezius muscle is great for restoring mobility to the upper back/neck.
In addition to mobility work, certain vocal hygiene behaviors are very important for laryngeal health. First, maintaining adequate hydration keeps the tissue around the larynx moist, helping to prevent vocal fold pathologies, such as nodules. In addition, chronic throat clearing and coughing really should be avoided as much as possible, as those behaviors are incredibly damaging to the tissue within the larynx. If you are one of those people who is always clearing your throat or coughing, try to drink water or take a deep breath instead. Because every time you throat clear or cough, your vocal folds slam against each other with a lot of force, and over time, that force can lead to pathologies on the vocal fold tissue, negatively affecting your vocal quality.
Lastly, it is super important to rest your voice throughout the day, and this is especially true if you use your voice professionally. There is no hard-fast rule about how long you should rest your voice each day, but in general, the more you use your voice (especially if speaking loudly over a crowd), the more you need to rest your voice. If you continue to talk when your laryngeal muscles are fatigued, you run the risk of increasing tension and pressure in these muscles, which can result in physical pathologies (e.g. vocal nodules) to the laryngeal tissue. If you continue to overuse your phonatory muscles, you run the risk of becoming aphonic (i.e. no voice production), temporarily or permanently.
Caring for Your Articulatory System
Your articulatory system also needs some TLC, so it too can function at its best. All the muscles, joints, and surrounding tissues of your face and mouth also need regular maintenance.
First, engage in some facial yoga as often as you can (daily is best). Smile strongly, open your jaw wide and play with closing it slowly, pucker your lips, and more. I have posted a lot about facial yoga on my social media accounts, so look me up on Facebook (Lotus Yogis By Jackie LLC) or Instagram (@Jackieallenspeechandyoga) for more detailed posts and examples of facial yoga, or refer to the examples in the image below. You can also do a Google search of "facial yoga" to give you some ideas.
Another way to keep the muscles of your articulatory system running optimally is to verbally produce different tongue twisters - you know the old, "sally sells seashells by the seashore" - that kind of stuff. Tongue twisters are great little mobility drills for the muscles in your face.
You can also perform SMR on the muscles and tissues of your face, such as rolling the jaw and cheek muscles. Of course, make sure you use a soft enough tool if doing SMR on your facial tissues, as this tissue is a little more delicate than the rest of the body. If you have questions about SMR, please refer to my earlier blog post about this topic (click here) or reach out to me directly.
Most humans use their voice to communicate verbally all day long, but people often neglect self-care for the vocal systems. Human speech is created via the collaboration and coordination of the respiratory, phonatory, and articulatory systems, all under the guidance and direction of the nervous system. The respiratory system is responsible for providing the power for speech production. The phonatory system provides the sound source for speech, and the articulatory system shapes that sound into understandable human speech. Each speech subsystem contains joints, muscles, and surrounding tissue that needs to be regularly moved and rested for optimal functioning. There are many exercises and activities that you can engage in to keep each subsystem running at its best. And a healthy voice is SO important for your daily communication. Trust me, I have seen patients lose their voice as a result of abuse and neglect, and it is NOT easy to lose your ability to verbally communicate. So, take care of your voice. After all, it is the only voice you have.
Please note, the information in this blog post is NOT intended to diagnose or treat voice disorders. Rather, this information is meant to provide you with preventative tools so that you hopefully do not develop a voice disorder in the future. If you have specific concerns about your vocal functioning, please enlist the support from a licensed and certified speech-language pathologist. For more information on speech-language pathologists or voice disorders, you can check out the American Speech-Language Hearing Association's (ASHA) website (click here).
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of neuroscience, human movement, anatomy, yoga, and speech therapy. If you have specific questions about your voice, please consult with your physician, speech-language pathologist, or voice coach. If you are interested in private yoga sessions with me, Jackie, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services and pricing. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my weekly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT