A scratchy voice or tickling sensation in your throat could signal a more serious problem. Learn how a voice specialist can help.

Do you find yourself clearing your throat for no explainable reason? Does your voice crackle, tire easily or sound raspy or hoarse? Do you have pain in your ear, jaw, or throat? These are some of the common symptoms people experience when they have a voice problem.

“Most voice disorders that we see can benefit from behavioral intervention,” said Michael Johns III, professor of clinical otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the USC Voice Center at the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery of Keck Medicine of USC. “In fact, 95 percent of patients that I see are non-surgical patients who can be treated with medical or behavioral intervention. About one out of 20 are surgical patients.”

Similarly to many clinics, the USC Voice Center employs a team approach to care, which means that you will see several voice professionals. These include a laryngologist, or voice specialist, and a speech pathologist with expertise in voice and swallowing problems. By treating the whole person, your doctors can learn if the problem stems from other issues, such as diet. Ultimately, you should expect a diagnosis and array of options to put you on the road to recovery.

What will my visit be like?

Your doctors will assess your symptoms and ask questions about swallowing and breathing issues and how you use your voice. A complete ear, nose and throat examination will then be performed, along with any other tests that might be needed. These can include:

  • Videostroboscopy, an outpatient test performed by passing a small telescope through either the mouth or nose so that the doctor can see your voice box and vocal cords. Adding a strobe light illuminates the vocal cords as they vibrate in slow motion.
  • Electromyography, a diagnostic test measures electrical activity in the muscles while you perform a variety of vocal tasks.
  • Flexible endoscopic evaluation of swallowing (FEES), which allows doctors to observe real-time swallowing function. In many cases, this outpatient test identifies the cause of swallowing problems on the spot.
  • Modified barium swallow for more complex issues. You will be asked to drink a chalky barium mixture that coats the inside walls of your esophagus and pharynx. This allows your upper gastrointestinal (GI) tract to show up on X-ray film.

Upon completion of all tests, your doctor will provide you with a detailed explanation of any findings as well as a diagnosis. You also will receive a comprehensive treatment plan.

How can I avoid voice problems?

Some issues, such as those suffered by professional vocalists, may be alleviated only with medical treatment, followed by rigorous maintenance. For less serious conditions, these tips can help you keep your voice healthy:

  1. Drink plenty of water so that your vocal cords remain lubricated.
  2. Do not smoke.
  3. Eliminate alcohol and caffeine from your diet, both of which dehydrate the body.
  4. If you use your voice professionally, practice warmup and cooldown exercises.
  5. Keep your weight stable. Strong vocal muscles and body posture benefit vocal activity.
  6. Avoid spicy and acidic foods, opting instead for foods with high water content, such as watermelon and grapes.

“If you have a chronic voice disorder, seek care from a fellowship-trained laryngologist,” Dr. Johns said. “They will direct you to the right care.”

By Heidi Tyline King

If you suffer from a voice or swallowing disorder, make an appointment with one of the specialists at the USC Voice Center at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting http://keckmedicine.org/patient-information/request-an-appointment/.