What causes laryngospasm?

Answers from Edward C. Rosenow III, M.D.

Laryngospasm (luh-RING-go-spaz-um) is a brief spasm of the vocal cords that temporarily makes it difficult to speak or breathe. The onset of vocal cord spasms is usually sudden, and the breathing difficulty can be alarming. However, the problem is not life-threatening, and it's generally brief and self-correcting.

Your vocal cords are located in an upper part of the airway called the voice box (larynx). A vocal cord spasm limits the flow of air through the larynx. The cause of laryngospasm is often not known, but certain conditions may be contributing factors or triggers:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which acid from the stomach backs up into the food pipe (esophagus)
  • Laryngopharyngeal reflux, in which the stomach acid backs up into the throat or back of the nasal passages
  • Anxiety or stress

If you experience episodes of breathing difficulty, see your doctor. Because the signs and symptoms of laryngospasm are similar to those of other conditions, it's important to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. These conditions may include:

  • Asthma
  • Exercise-induced asthma
  • Other types of vocal cord dysfunction

If the diagnosis is unclear, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist to look at your vocal cords to be sure there is no other abnormality. If the diagnosis is laryngospasm or other vocal cord dysfunction, your doctor may refer you to a speech-language pathologist to help you learn breathing exercises. Relaxation and breathing techniques may relieve symptoms and lessen the frequency or severity of laryngospasms in the future.

Your doctor will also want to determine if underlying problems, such as GERD or anxiety, may be contributing to vocal cord spasms. Treating these conditions also may lessen the frequency or severity of laryngospasms.

Nov. 18, 2014 See more Expert Answers