What the Heck is Vocal Cord Dysfunction?

photo of a woman coughing with the title "What the Heck is vocal cord dysfunction?"I have had a chronic cough for most of my adult life.  It’s not fun, but I’m used to it.  Almost 10 years ago I started exhibiting “normal” asthma signs as well – wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Last year we finally got good insurance and the doctor figured out some of my problem was related to acid reflux and some related to post-nasal drip.  Five inhalers and two pills later, a small change in diet and elevated pillows have helped considerably.

The only problem was I also developed a new problem. Now instead of occasional wheezing when I experienced a trigger, I started experiencing instant, nearly complete “shut-downs”.  With no warning I could no longer inhale. At all.  Or sometimes I could barely inhale, but it felt like I was breathing through a straw or like I was a fish out of water, gasping for air.

Two visits to my general practitioner and two allergists later, I was diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction.

According to the American Thoracic Society, vocal cord dysfunction is characterized by:

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty getting air into or out of your lungs.
  • Tightness in the throat or chest.
  • Frequent cough or throat clearing.
  • A feeling of choking or suffocation
  • Noisy breathing (stridor, gasping, raspy sounds or wheezing )
  • Hoarse voice

Vocal cord dysfunction can be triggered by many things, including:

  • Acid reflux (GERD)
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Upper respiratory infection (cold)
  • Exercise
  • Strong odors or fumes
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Strong emotions and stress

When a person with VCD experiences a trigger, their vocal cords will close. “Normal” vocal cords open on inspiration and close slightly on expiration.  In a person with VCD, when suffering an attack, the vocal cords stay closed on inspiration, making it very difficult to get air in.

drawing of normal vocal cords and vocal cords with dysfunction
reproduced from nursingtimes.net

After visiting a speech therapist, I learned that there are two major components to controlling VCD (I haven’t found a way to prevent it as of yet).  The first, and most important is to RELAX.  That’s easier said than done when you can’t breathe, but I can attest to the fact that it works.

The second component is controlled breathing.  If you have been diagnosed with VCD, I highly recommend a visit to a speech therapist.  He or she will teach you some really helpful breathing techniques to use when you have an attack.  My therapist told me that if I continue to practice controlled breathing I may even be able to bring my cough under control, in time.

Of course, for me, VCD is only part of the problem.  I still have asthma, reflux and vasomotor rhinitis which (unfortunately) all work together to give me lots of fun upper respiratory problems.  Learning how to control these issues, step by step (including VCD) is giving me the strength and confidence I need to have a better quality of life (and isn’t that what we all want?)

If you think you might have VCD, please consult your doctor.  This blog does not offer medical advice and is not a substitute for diagnosis by a trained physician.

Please comment!!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.