Everybody has a different description for what they experience when they overdo it with their voice. Everybody reacts to vocal strain in a different way, depending on their level of knowledge (about how the voice works) and their life experiences (advice they have accumulated along the way).
This blog aims to clarify:
1) what vocal strain sounds and feels like,
2) what to do about it,
3) and to offer advice on how you can try to avoid it in the first place.
Vocal Strain: What does it sound and feel like?
The most common symptoms of vocal strain are:
- Discomfort in the throat and neck area: this could be an ache, soreness, pain, tightness, scratchiness, tickling, the feeling of a lump in the throat, dryness or a burning sensation.
- Impaired voice quality: such as hoarseness, breathiness, a ‘strained’ sound, roughness, pitch breaks, or creakiness.
- Change in the pitch of the voice: too high, too low, or monotone.
- Voice loss: fatigue, running out of breath.
- Difficulty in projecting the voice: volume is difficult to control, muffled voice or difficulty with resonance.
- Difficulty reaching certain pitches. That you could reach previously.
These symptoms can occur in association with structural changes on the vocal folds like swelling, inflammation, vocal nodules, polyps, sulci, but in many cases the vocal folds appear perfectly normal.
In only a very small number of cases are voice problems caused by a serious disease.
The usual cause of vocal strain will be a combination of small problems related to the way the person uses his or her voice, the physical environment in which the voice is used and increased levels of stress and tension. Sometimes an unhealthy lifestyle or illnesses such as hay fever, reflux and sinus problems can also contribute to the problem. Because most voice problems are caused by a combination of factors which are not serious or difficult to eliminate, most can be easily prevented or remedied if detected early.
Vocal Strain: What to do about it?
Nearly everyone experiences minor throat discomfort or small changes in breath control, voice quality, pitch, loudness, or resonance from time to time. (Especially in the mornings or after a night out!)
When these changes are very slight, last for only a few minutes and do not recur every day, there is usually nothing to be concerned about.
When these changes are associated with a viral infection of the throat or sinuses, as long as the voice symptoms disappear when the infection resolves, there is rarely a need to be concerned.
If the voice symptoms are more than very slight, last for days, recur regularly and do not result from a viral infection, it is important to get your voice checked. From a medical point of view, the usual guideline is that any hoarseness or voice loss which persists for three weeks or more should be investigated by a medical doctor, preferably an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.
In other words – go to your GP and get a referral to an ENT doctor.
They will be able to take a look at your vocal mechanism, take some information about your lifestyle and general health, and find out what may be the cause of the difficulty. Better to know and get it sorted than to panic and retreat into yourself or stop singing!
Vocal Strain: Causes and contributing factors
There are many possible causes and contributing factors for voice problems which can increase a person’s risk for developing a voice problem. Individuals vary widely in their susceptibility to voice problems and a factor which causes a voice problem in one person may have no adverse affect on another.
The main factors you can control to help reduce the likelihood of voice problems are:
• Understanding and implementing voice care principles (See British Voice Association website for advice and downloadable resources)
• Voice use patterns, e.g. rest after a night out, warm up, cool down.
• Voice production techniques, e.g. good breathing for speech, monitoring volume levels.
• Health and stress patterns, e.g. recognising when you are anxious, stressed, tired – and giving the body what it needs, such as better nutrition, sleep, relaxation etc.
• Characteristics of the physical environment, e.g. using appropriate amplification, recognising the voice’s natural limits.
Those who have a limited understanding of the basic anatomy and physiology of voice production and little knowledge of the principles of voice care may be at greater risk of developing voice problems. It’s a duty to yourself if you are serious about singing to find out more about voice care and make sure you stick to it – Respect yourself and your instrument!
It goes without saying an individual is likely to be at risk if they misuse their voice by yelling or using inefficient voice production techniques such as upper chest breathing in speech and singing.
Further, an individual is more likely to be at risk for voice disorders if they have health problems such as reflux, allergy, poor general health and high stress levels; or use their voices in environments which are not conducive to safe voice production like rooms with poor acoustics.
It is near impossible to offer individualised advice on how you should alter your ways to protect yourself from vocal strain through a single blog, but I hope this goes someway to encouraging you to seek out a specialist, or read advice published by recognised voice associations, such as the British Voice Association or the Voice Care Network.
The voice is simple – it is an instrument that is part of your body. It is an active, dynamic system of muscle-use that requires good nutrition and hydration, a good exercise routine, and respect. If you are a singer, you are an athlete.
Take care of yourself and your voice will be better off for it.
Contact me directly by commenting on this blog or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions regarding vocal health for yourself or your students. More than happy to help.
Love and sunshine to all of you,
Specialist Speech and Language Therapist (Voice) / Singing Teacher