When Your Voice is Your Job, Vocal Care is Everything

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Making your living off your voice.

When talking about vocal professionals, many people think of singers and performing artists. But teachers, lawyers, and public speakers have incredibly high vocal demands that can lead to difficulties.

Teachers are required to talk for many hours a day, to bigger and bigger classes, sometimes in very poor acoustical settings. Most do not have access to microphones and have to keep speaking over noisy kids. All of this can lead to increased vocal strain, hoarseness, and difficulty communicating.

As a result, teachers are at great risk for occupational-related voice disorders. A 2016 study conducted at the University of Miami found that voice-related absenteeism among public school teachers costs Miami-Dade County $1 million per year. A 2004 study suggests that students don’t learn as well when their teacher has a raspy voice.

“Our physicians and voice therapists work with teachers and other professionals to uncover the root of your voice problems so that we can develop a personalized treatment plan,” says Dr. David Rosow, director of the division of Laryngology and Voice at the University of Miami Health System. “Did you have a cold and kept teaching? Have you developed allergies? Has your teaching environment changed or have your vocal demands increased? Has our diet changed and caused acid reflux? Or do you have a polyp, nodule, or other growth on the vocal folds?”

Everyday Care for the Voice

Whether you rely on your voice for a paycheck or just like to talk, your voice is one of your most important assets.

  • Stay hydrated by drinking at least six to eight glasses of water a day; and try to limit intake of dehydrating beverages like caffeine and alcohol to prevent irritation of the throat.
  • Rest your voice when it’s not necessary to use it. Just like other muscular systems in the body, your vocal folds need time to recover from activity. Interspersing talking time with quiet periods allows periodic rest for the vocal folds and helps prevent strain.
  • Use non-vocal cues. In a public speaking situation, things like gestures and finger snaps can be even more effective than raising your voice to gain the attention of an audience.
  • Pay attention to changes in your voice, and when you’re getting hoarse, stop the use of your voice as much as possible. Unless you have a cold or laryngitis, it’s not normal to have a hoarse voice. Hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks is never normal and should prompt a visit to a voice specialist before a more serious problem develops.
  • Drink water. Avoid acids. Most herbal and nontraditional remedies may give some temporary relief but not long term. Steer clear of apple cider vinegar or other acidic treatments, which are actually damaging to the voice.
  • Use a microphone and speaker when possible.
  • Get your heartburn or acid reflux treated. They can greatly affect the voice.
  • Get your ears checked. Hearing loss can make it difficult to tell how loud you are speaking, which can lead to voice strain.
  • Do not clear your throat: It acts as a slapping of the vocal folds over and over and traumatizes them, eventually causing vocal nodules.
  • Avoid yelling: Trying to talk or raise the voice over noisy environments can cause us to talk louder than we realize and can cause voice loss over time.

Besides everyday care for the voice, there are two other components to voice therapy:

  • Education: After diagnostic tests, therapists explain the nature of their problem and how your voice habits contribute to it.
  • Directed vocal exercises: This aspect of therapy deals with individualized exercise programs developed for each patient that are continually monitored during sessions and modified as needed.

Specialized Voice Therapy

Dr. Rosow says that professional voice users, also known as “vocal athletes”, should give their voices the same care that athletes give their bodies. A thorough evaluation at a voice center can diagnose the problem and provide targeted treatments.

It’s important to get a medical diagnosis before seeking out the assistance from a speech language pathologist, both to identify the problem and to make sure your insurance covers treatment.

A 2016 study conducted at the University of Miami found that voice-related absenteeism among public school teachers costs Miami-Dade County $1 million per year.

Voice therapy is a common means of treatment for individuals with hoarseness that may be related to improper vocal usage or over-use, and is typically curative for a wide range of benign voice disorders. Therapy is also critical in people undergoing surgery to help prevent recurrence due to improper vocal usage.

Similar to physical therapy, voice therapy uses techniques to retrain muscle groups to produce the voice with less effort, strain, and in better alignment. Therapy frequently includes exercises that must be practiced to create a new automatic pattern of speaking.

 


Mary Jo Blackwood, RN, MPH, is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog. Based in St. Louis, MO, and Colorado.