Treatment of vocal cord paralysis depends on the cause, the severity of symptoms and the time from the onset of symptoms. Treatment may include voice therapy, bulk injections, surgery or a combination of treatments. In some instances, you may get better without surgical treatment. For this reason, your doctor may delay permanent surgery for six months to a year from the beginning of your vocal cord paralysis. Bulk injections using collagen-like substances are often done within the first month of voice loss, however. During the waiting period for surgery, your doctor may suggest voice therapy to help keep you from using your voice improperly while the nerves heal.
Voice therapy sessions involve exercises or other activities to strengthen your vocal cords, improve breath control during speech, prevent abnormal tensions in other muscles around the paralyzed vocal cord and protect your airway during swallowing. Occasionally, voice therapy may be the only treatment you need if your vocal cords were paralyzed in a location that doesn't require additional bulk or repositioning.
If your vocal cord paralysis symptoms don't fully recover on their own, surgical treatments may be offered to improve your ability to speak and to swallow. Surgical options include:
- Bulk injection. Paralysis of the nerve to your vocal cord will probably leave the vocal cord muscle thin and weak. To add bulk to a paralyzed vocal cord, a doctor who specializes in disorders of the larynx (laryngologist) may inject your vocal cord with a substance such as body fat, collagen or another approved filler substance. This added bulk brings the affected vocal cord closer to the middle of your voice box so that the opposite functioning and moving vocal cord can make closer contact with the paralyzed cord when you speak, swallow or cough.
- Structural implants. Instead of using a bulk injection, this procedure — known as medialization laryngoplasty or laryngeal framework surgery — relies on the use of an implant in the larynx to reposition the vocal cord. Rarely people who have this surgery may need to have a second surgery to reposition the implant.
- Vocal cord repositioning. In this procedure, a surgeon moves a window of your own tissue from the outside of your voice box inward, pushing the paralyzed vocal cord toward the middle of your voice box. This allows your unimpaired vocal cord to better vibrate against its paralyzed partner.
- Replacing the damaged nerve (reinnervation). In this surgery, a healthy nerve is moved from a different area of the neck to replace the damaged vocal cord. It can take as long as six months before the new nerves start working. Some doctors combine this surgery with a bulk injection.
- Tracheotomy. If both of your vocal cords are paralyzed and positioned closely together, your airflow will be decreased. In this situation, you'll have a lot of trouble breathing and require a surgical procedure called a tracheotomy. In a tracheotomy, an incision is made in the front of your neck and an opening created directly into the windpipe (trachea). A breathing tube is inserted, allowing air to bypass the immobilized vocal cords.
Linking the vocal cords to an alternative source of electrical stimulation — perhaps a nerve from another part of the body or a device similar to a cardiac pacemaker — may restore opening and closing of the vocal cords. Researchers continue to study this and other options.
June 15, 2012
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- Ekbom DC (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. June 6, 2012.
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