Acute trauma or chronic irritation causes changes in the vocal cords that can lead to polyps or nodules. Both cause hoarseness and a breathy voice. Persistence of these symptoms for > 3 wk dictates visualization of the vocal cords. Diagnosis is based on laryngoscopy and on biopsy to rule out cancer. Surgical removal restores the voice, and removal of the irritating source prevents recurrence.
Polyps and nodules result from injury to the lamina propria of the true vocal cords. Polyps may occur at the mid third of the membranous cords and are more often unilateral. They frequently result from an initiating acute phonatory injury. Nodules usually occur bilaterally at the junction of the anterior and middle third of the cords. Their main cause is chronic voice abuse—yelling, shouting, singing loudly, or using an unnaturally low frequency. Polyps may have several other causes, including gastric reflux, untreated hypothyroid states, chronic laryngeal allergic reactions, or chronic inhalation of irritants, such as industrial fumes or cigarette smoke. Polyps tend to be larger and more protuberant than nodules and often have a dominant surface blood vessel.
Symptoms and Signs
Both result in slowly developing hoarseness and a breathy voice.
Diagnosis is based on direct or indirect visualization of the larynx with a mirror or laryngoscope. Biopsy of discrete lesions to exclude carcinoma is done by microlaryngoscopy.
Correction of the underlying voice abuse cures most nodules and prevents recurrence. Removal of the offending irritants allows healing, and voice therapy with a speech therapist reduces the trauma to the vocal cords caused by improper singing or protracted loud speaking. Nodules usually regress with voice therapy alone.
Most polyps must be surgically removed to restore a normal voice. Cold-knife microsurgical excision during direct microlaryngoscopy is preferable to laser excision, which is more likely to cause collateral thermal injury if improperly applied.
In microlaryngoscopy, an operating microscope is used to examine, biopsy, and operate on the larynx. Images can be recorded on video as well. The patient is anesthetized, and the airway is secured by high-pressure jet ventilation through the laryngoscope, endotracheal intubation, or, for an inadequate upper airway, tracheotomy. Because the microscope allows observation with magnification, tissue can be removed precisely and accurately, minimizing damage (possibly permanent) to the vocal mechanism. Laser surgery can be done through the optical system of the microscope to allow for precise cuts. Microlaryngoscopy is preferred for almost all laryngeal biopsies, for procedures involving benign tumors, and for many forms of phonosurgery.
Last full review/revision July 2008 by Clarence T. Sasaki, MD
Content last modified July 2008