Your voice is an instrument that needs to be taken care of and protected in order to prevent injury or breakdown. Whether in a whisper or a scream, whenever you use your voice, two small structures in the throat called vocal cords—also called vocal folds—vibrate and collide in different patterns to produce sound. If these vocal cords collide in ways that produce too much friction, the spot where the vocal cords hit each other can become irritated and inflamed.
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Over time, noncancerous lesions may develop at those contact points, similar to the way a callous or blister may form on skin. These lesions are not life-threatening, but they can interfere with the way the vocal cords function and may affect the way your voice sounds.
There are four common types of benign lesions that specialists at NYU Langone’s Voice Center may identify on your vocal cords: polyp, nodule, cyst, and scar tissue.
A vocal cord polyp is the most common type of benign vocal cord lesion. When vocal cords slam against each other and become irritated and inflamed, blister-like injuries can form at the point of contact and develop into fleshy sacs attached to the vocal cord.
A common cause of polyps is a single traumatic event—for example, a sustained period of yelling—that leads to a blood blister, which then develops into a polyp. Polyps vary in size and can develop on one or both vocal cords.
A cyst is a sac that is typically filled with fluid or mucus. Cysts may form when irritation on a vocal cord results in the obstruction of a glandular duct, a small opening in the tissue lining the vocal cords that excretes mucus and other substances. If this duct becomes clogged, a buildup of mucus occurs and may lead to the formation of a cyst.
A cyst that develops deep in the vocal cords may significantly alter your voice’s natural frequency of vibration, which could result in a noticeable change in the sound of your voice.
Vocal cord nodules are the result of repeated vocal cord irritation. These firm, callous-like growths are typically located on both vocal cords. If left untreated, vocal cord nodules continue to grow and stiffen, so early detection is important to avoid future complications that can affect your voice.
Vocal cord scarring occurs when the body attempts to repair an injury to the vocal cord. Scar tissue is less pliable than normal tissue. As a result, the vibrations that create the sound of your voice may be altered.
Unlike nodules and polyps, which can disappear with therapy and medication, scar tissue on the vocal cords is permanent. Scar tissue may need to be removed in order to restore normal vocal cord function.
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