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Voice dystonia (the medical term is laryngeal dystonia and also sometimes spasmodic dysphonia) is a rare voice disorder caused by involuntary muscle contractions supplying the vocal cords. It is believed to be the result of incorrect messages from the brain to the muscles in the throat. Symptoms usually appear between the ages of 30 and 50 but it does sometimes affect younger or older people.
Signs of laryngeal dystonia are:
- A strained voice sometimes with a tremor. It becomes an effort to speak.
- The voice has a strangled quality and/or a feeling of choking on words.
- Alternatively, the voice can be breathy, whispering or very quiet. It becomes a struggle to project the voice especially in noisy environments.
If the symptoms above appear, the right course of action is for the GP to make a referral to an ear, nose and throat surgeon specialising in laryngeal dystonia. As laryngeal dystonia is so rare, it is likely that a GP will not have encountered a patient with this condition.
Generally, if laryngeal dystonia starts in adulthood, the dystonia affects only the voice. If it spreads at all, which is unlikely, it is usually only to one other area.
Treatment usually involves regular injections. Some people might also benefit from speech therapy. It is very much an individual experience.
If you would like to join the Dystonia Society Facebook group for Voice Dystonia click here.
Sensory tricks / coping tips for voice dystonia *
What can help:
- Vocal exercise (humming, speaking slowly, reciting nursery rhymes)
- Volume control (talking softly or loudly)
- Feeling relaxed
- Breathing deeper breaths, exhaling before speaking, not holding onto the breath
- Environmental control (talking one-on-one, not being interrupted)
- Using voice early in the morning
- Sensory gestures (covering eyes, pinching nose)
- Physical exercise (need to check exercise is appropriate with doctor before trying)
- Mental aspects ("not thinking about it", keeping a good attitude)
- Miscellaneous (physical rest, vocal rest, warm liquids, laughing)
What often makes voice quality worse? *
- Stress (being tense, being in a hurry)
- Speaking on the telephone
- Speaking in a loud or large space
- Trying to talk over noise
- Lack of sleep
- Negative thinking
- Miscellaneous (overuse, weather changes, having a cold)
Coping with dystonia can be done most successfully if the person affected by dystonia (and, where appropriate, their carers) actively manages the condition. Everyone is different and so what this means in practice will vary from person to person. To manage dystonia effectively, people affected by dystonia need information about all aspects of the condition. This can enable them to take control and become the actor of their condition. Click here to read more about managing dystonia.
Dystonia and mental health
Mental health is a sensitive topic for many people with dystonia as many cases of dystonia are initially mistaken for a mental health (or psychological) condition. In the vast majority of cases, dystonia is a neurological illness and does not have a mental health cause.
However, it is also increasingly understood, that although mental health conditions do not normally cause dystonia, there can be an important relationship in some cases between dystonia and mental health conditions such as stress, depression and anxiety.
This relationship can be two way - the symptoms of dystonia can cause anxiety or depression but also anxiety and stress can make the physical symptoms of dystonia worse. If you are affected by a mental health problem, it is important to get treatment. Click here to read more about dystonia and mental health.
If you would like more information, you can call our helpline on 0845 458 6322. To read case studies of individuals with voice dystonia that have been featured in Dystoniamatters! click on the links below:
* The information marked with an asterisk is from the US patient advocacy group, the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association.
Last reviewed 2012
The Dystonia Society provides the information on this page as general information only. It is not intended to provide instruction and you should not rely on this information to determine diagnosis, prognosis or a course of treatment. It should not be used in place of a professional consultation with a doctor.
The Dystonia Society is not responsible for the consequences of your decisions resulting from the use of this information, including, but not limited to, your choosing to seek or not to seek professional medical care, or from choosing or not choosing specific treatment based on the information. You should not disregard the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider because of any information you receive from us. If you have any health care questions, please consult the relevant medical practitioner.