Vocal Strain

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:


  1. 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.
  2. Impaired voice quality: such as hoarseness, breathiness, a ‘strained’ sound, roughness, pitch breaks, or creakiness.
  3. Change in the pitch of the voice: too high, too low, or monotone.
  4. Voice loss: fatigue, running out of breath.
  5. Difficulty in projecting the voice: volume is difficult to control, muffled voice or difficulty with resonance.
  6. 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 rockstarvox@me.com 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,


Carrie Garrett

Specialist Speech and Language Therapist (Voice) / Singing Teacher 


10 thoughts on “Vocal Strain

  1. Pingback: International Guest Blogger Carrie Garrett (Speech/Language Therapist/Voice Teacher) discusses Vocal Strain! | Vocal Strength Studio

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  3. Dear Carrie,

    I have been trying to figure out what has been going on with me for a couple days now. This started about a week or less ago when I was afraid I had a sore throat, or worse I was having vocal strain. I kept looking up my symptoms and nothing was really sure what was wrong with me.

    I just read your article and what you said about symptoms is what I have almost exactly, the dryness, a lump in my throat. I woke up this morning and it hurts worse then the day before. I am so beyond terrified because I am starting tech tomorrow and I am the lead. Please I have never had this before and I need to know what I can do.

  4. Hi Carrie…great information.Suffering with a voice problem at the moment.Fine in morning and when voice is rested.Soon as i start to talk ,feel a lump in throat feeling..like globus.Stressing me out.Booked in to see ENT specialist on Saturday.Seems to suggest vocal strain though…Fingers crossed everything o.k….Thanks again.

  5. Hi
    I am 14 years old. I am in a choir. I participated in a group shouting competition which lasted about 7 hours (they call it sing). After that my voice was mostly gone for about 4 days gradually getting better as each day passed. My voice was still funny when it was the fifth day. It became kind of normal. I think my voice has become slightly deeper. When I sing I struggle to hit the high notes that I always could hit. While I sing i want to clear my throat, it feels like there is something in my throat and afterwards it still feels like it. My singing voice sounds a little bit more airy than it used to. I didn’t sing for a week after the shouting and now i’ve began singing again but it doesn’t sound right. I’m struggling to sing some of the notes of some songs. I don’t know if my singing is like this because I didn’t sing for a week or if I damaged my vocal chords. I now sing the deeper notes easier. I think I have a little bit of a cold as well I don’t know if that contributes to it. I don’t want to be moved to an alto. I really want my pretty soprano voice back, how can I do that? (Note that I dont have a lot of money). I miss my singing high voice really badly. Singing fulfills me and now that my voice is like this I can’t be fulfilled. I can still sing kind of well but not as good as i did. I feel depressed and hopeless. And I’m scared that I might have to have surgery for it. And I’m scared I’m never going to be able to sing the way I used to. Can my singing just be my voice that decided it wanted to become deeper? I also stress a lot i dont know if that is a factor. Please let me know as soon as possible what I can do to get my high singing voice back or if you think that would even be possible and what you think is wrong with my voice/vocal chords. Please this thing is stressing me out. Thank you.

    • Hi Salomina,
      Please try not to worry. If you are in the UK you don’t need money to receive the right care and advice you need.

      Take a deep breath and jot down what you need to do next:
      1. Go to see your GP and explain to them you are a singer, that singing is a huge part of your life, and that you would like to be referred to an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor (ENT).
      2.An ENT doctor will be able to have a little look at your larynx to see what’s going on inside.

      There really is nothing to worry about. The need for Surgery is rare. High notes are more difficult to produce when muscles are tense and all this worry is definitely not going to be helping.

      With this in mind, the sooner you get seen and a doctor can confirm everything’s ok, the sooner you can return to working towards your vocal goals.

      What region of the country do you live in? If you go to the British Voice Association website you can find voice clinics in your local area. Once you have located them give them a call for any further information that might be relevant in your local area in terms of waiting list times, etc.

      Hope this is sorted for you soon.
      Carrie x

  6. Hi. I’m 62 and started singing about 2 years ago – folkie stuff with acoustic guitar accompaniment. Voice changed / opened up last 2 months allowing me to reach slightly higher notes with a fuller sound. But feeling sometimes lump in throat and a little difficulty swallowing in morning. I’ve never even spoken loudly in the past. Are such changes to be expected and will they moderate over time? Thanks! Scott

    • Hi Scott,
      Lump in throat and difficulty swallowing could have a whole host of contributing factors. They may not be related to your singing at all!

      Lump in throat sensation is sometimes called ‘Globus’ and can be physiological, exacerbated by things like laryngopharyngeal reflux or tension in the area you are feeling the lump – sometimes caused by vocal technique, but not always. The lump sensation may also be caused by tension linked to psychological changes such as trauma or stressful times in life.

      Changes in sensation, difficulty swallowing, even not speaking loudly…all these things are definitely worth sharing with your GP with a view to being referred to an ENT doctor so they can have a look at what’s going on. They will be able to get a fuller picture of you and your lifestyle / voice use/ general health, and will be able to differentially diagnose what may be causing these vocal tract changes you have been experiencing. Once they have a clearer picture of the cause you will be able to tackle the problem, with the overall aim being (in an ideal world) to get rid of these vocal tract symptoms.

      Sorry I cannot be more specific. I hope this helps in the longer run. Definitely get checked out. In the meantime, you can help yourself improve general vocal maintenance by staying well hydrated, warming up and cooling down your voice before and after singing (seek the help of a singing teacher if you’d like some support with this), and making sure your body gets what it need by way of proper nutrients, rest and relaxation… even a decent night’s sleep can sometimes make a huge difference!

      Take care for now and let me know how you get on!
      Carrie x

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