What is Vocal Cord Dysfunction?

By: Nicole Mezo, PA-C

Vocal cord dysfunction (VCD) is a condition where the vocal cords “close” when they should be opening, specifically with inspiration.  When this occurs, a person may experience shortness of breath, throat and chest tightness, coughing, intermittent hoarseness, and a wheezing sound from the throat called stridor.  These symptoms can lead to a person feeling anxious, panicky, and fearful.

Is it Asthma?

Because VCD can masquerade as asthma, many people with VCD may have multiple emergency department visits for their symptoms, be prescribed asthma medications that are not helpful, and may stop participating in physical activities they enjoy.  Vocal cord dysfunction can occur in asthmatic patients, too, and it is estimated that up to 40% of asthmatics also have VCD.

What causes Vocal Cord Dysfunction?

Triggers include strong smells, smoke, post nasal drip, cold air, acid reflux, and emotional and physical stress (i.e. exercise).  Vocal cord dysfunction can be seen in anyone but has been reported primarily in female healthcare workers, “Type A” personalities, overachievers, and competitive athletes.

vocal chord dysfunction

Vocal Cord Dysfunction Diagnosis and Treatment

To diagnose VCD, a detailed history must be taken.  From there, lung functions with inspiratory flow volume loops should be done.  A laryngoscopy visualizing the closure of the vocal cords during symptoms is diagnostic.  Exercise challenges to elicit symptoms that occur with activity can be performed to document symptoms.

Treatment for VCD focuses on activities that allow the muscles in the throat to relax, thus reducing muscle tone.  Abdominal breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are the mainstay in treating VCD.  These exercises and additional treatment can be reinforced with a referral to a skilled speech therapist familiar with VCD.

Wondering if you have VCD or asthma? Make an appointment today!