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Vocal Self-Care 101

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

Hey Lotus Yogis!

Let's talk ALL things VOICE today. Did you know that your voice actually results from the coordinated efforts of your respiratory system (i.e. lungs, diaphragm, muscles of trunk), phonatory system (i.e. your voice box, aka Larynx), and your articulatory system (i.e. throat, mouth, nose)? Well, yep! It sure does!

Your respiratory system provides the power source for your voice. Without your respiratory system, your voice would not have enough power to operate. We, meaning humans, speak on the exhale. That means, we speak as air is leaving our lungs. Speech exhalation is different from non-speech exhalation, though. During speech breathing, the muscles of your core and rib cage produce a graded contraction to slowly release the air out of your larynx and articulatory system, allowing you to produce voice (in contrast, exhalation during quiet breathing is usually a passive process where air is forced out of your lungs as various muscles relax). But of course, to exhale you must first take air INTO your respiratory system. The more air you inhale prior to speaking, the more power you have to produce voice. As the air exits your lungs, it passes through your phonatory system, or larynx. The air you inhaled begins to build up below your vocal folds (which are primarily made of muscle), increasing the pressure beneath your VFs. Once the pressure increases enough, your vocal folds are blown open, allowing air to pass through your glottis (i.e. the space between your VFs). As your vocal folds come back together at midline (due to a combination of pressure forces and tissue elasticity), they rub together, creating sound energy in the form of vibration that we perceive as human voice. As this sound energy continues its journey into your articulatory system, your lips, tongue, soft palate and other muscles in the face shape that sound energy into the speech sounds of our native language.

So now that you understand where your voice comes from, let's talk about vocal behaviors that can be damaging to your voice and healthy vocal behaviors to replace them.

  • Dehydration: Your vocal folds (VFs) are covered by a layer of moist epithelium. When your body is dehydrated (e.g. from lack of water or too much caffeine), this superficial layer of cells becomes drier, causing more friction to occur when your VFs rub together and vibrate during speaking. This increased friction can lead to nodules (sort of like a blister) on your VFs. The extra mass from the nodules can affect how your voice sounds when you talk. HEALTHY VOCAL CHOICE: DRINK PLENTY OF WATER EVERY DAY!

  • Excessive throat clearing/coughing: Each time you clear your throat or cough, your VFs adduct, or close, forcefully. That forceful adduction can create excessive friction on the medial (or midline) side of your VFs, causing damage or other pathologies (e.g. nodules) to the outer layer of the VFs. This damage to the VF tissue can affect the quality of your voice, making your voice sound shaky, rough, or hoarse. Throat clearing here or there is likely not going to damage your VF tissue, but if you are one of those people who is constantly clearing your voice all day, STOP! Similarly, an occasional cough is usually not problematic for your VF tissue. However, coughing all day long can damage the VF tissue, affecting your voice quality. Each time you want to clear your voice or cough, swallow instead. HEALTHY VOCAL CHOICE: SWALLOW OR DRINK WATER INSTEAD OF CONSTANTLY CLEARING YOUR THROAT OR COUGHING!

  • Excessive use of a loud voice: When we speak using a loud vocal volume, it causes your VFs to burst open and then slam together forcefully at midline. Using a loud speaking voice on the regular can cause the same kind of damage to your VF tissue that chronic cough/throat clearing can cause. A very loud voice (e.g. yelling at your favorite sports game) can also cause the tiny blood vessels that supply your VFs to burst, causing a hematoma on your VFs (sort of like a bruise). Occasionally using a loud voice is probably fine for your vocal health, but consistently speaking with a loud voice can cause damage to your VF tissue. HEALTHY VOCAL CHOICE: USE A LOUD SPEAKING VOICE SPARINGLY!

  • Speaking with too much tension in your neck muscles: We often hold a lot of our stress in our neck and shoulder musculature. This can cause these muscles to become too tense, or tight. When your neck muscles are habitually tight, it can reduce their range of motion (ROM). The muscles that produce voice need to be able to move through their full ROM to stay healthy and strong. Also, a full ROM in your laryngeal muscles allows you to use the full range of your vocal movements, creating a healthier voice. HEALTHY VOCAL CHOICE: ACTIVELY RELAX THE MUSCLES IN YOUR NECK, CHEST, AND UPPER BACK EVERY DAY!

  • Smoking: Do I even need to explain this? Obviously, smoking is all sorts of bad for you, and your larynx is no exception to this rule. Smoking itself can damage your VFs and the surrounding tissue. It can also cause cancer. HEALTHY VOCAL CHOICE: DO NOT SMOKE!

  • Using your voice too much during the day: Some people have to use their voice A LOT during the day (e.g. teachers, podcasters, etc.). If you use your voice throughout most of your day, you need to find time throughout the day to rest those muscles. Resting your voice means no speaking, singing, or whispering for a set period of time (e.g. 5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc.). If you do not rest your voice, those muscles will fatigue. Speaking with fatigued muscles is likely to lead to muscle strain the neck and upper back, resulting in more vocal issues (see above). The muscles that produce voice are just like the rest of the muscles in your body. They need movement, but they also require time to rest and repair. HEALTHY VOCAL CHOICE: REST YOUR VOICE THROUGHOUT THE DAY, ESPECIALLY IF YOU TALK A LOT DURING THE DAY!

Thank you so much for learning more about your voice with me! Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have! And please, take care of your voice box. You only get the one, so treat it compassionately.

~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT

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