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Vocal Cord Polyps, Nodules, and Granulomas

By

Clarence T. Sasaki

, MD, Yale University School of Medicine

Last full review/revision Jul 2020| Content last modified Jul 2020
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Acute trauma or chronic irritation causes changes in the vocal cords that can lead to polyps, nodules, or granulomas. All cause hoarseness and a breathy voice. Persistence of these symptoms for > 3 weeks dictates visualization of the vocal cords. Diagnosis is based on laryngoscopy and on biopsy in selected cases to rule out cancer. Judicious surgical removal restores the voice, and removal of the irritating source prevents recurrence.

Etiology

Polyps and nodules result from injury to the lamina propria of the true vocal cords. Granulomas result from injury to the perichondrium overlying the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages.

Vocal cord polyps may occur at the mid third of the membranous cords and are more often unilateral. Polyps tend to be larger and more protuberant than nodules and often have a dominant surface blood vessel. They frequently result from an initiating acute phonatory injury. Other polypoid changes, often bilateral, may have several other causes, including gastroesophageal reflux, untreated hypothyroid states, chronic laryngeal allergic reactions, or chronic inhalation of irritants, such as industrial fumes or cigarette smoke. Acute injury usually causes pedunculated polyps, whereas polypoid edema results from chronic irritation.

Vocal cord 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.

Vocal cord granulomas occur in the posterior glottis adjacent to the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilage. They can be bilateral or unilateral. They usually result from intubation trauma but may be aggravated by reflux disease.

Laryngeal disorders

When relaxed, the vocal cords normally form a V-shaped opening that allows air to pass freely through to the trachea. The cords open during inspiration and close during swallowing or speech. When a mirror is held in the back of a patient’s mouth, the vocal cords can often be seen and checked for disorders, such as contact ulcers, polyps, nodules, paralysis, and cancer. Paralysis may affect one (unilateral) or both vocal cords (bilateral—not shown).

Laryngeal disorders

Symptoms and Signs

All polyps, nodules, and granulomas result in slowly developing hoarseness and a breathy voice.

Diagnosis

Treatment

  • Avoidance of cause

  • For polyps, usually surgical removal

Correction of the underlying voice abuse cures most nodules and granulomas and prevents recurrence. Removal of the offending irritants (including treatment of any gastroesophageal reflux) allows healing and is necessary to prevent recurrence. 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. Granulomas that do not regress can be removed surgically but tend to recur.

Traumatic polyps must be surgically removed to restore a normal voice. Other polypoid lesions, often bilateral, arising from tobacco abuse or hypothyroid states, should initially receive medical management. 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.

Key Points

  • Vocal cord polyps, nodules, and granulomas result from acute trauma or chronic irritation.

  • Symptoms persisting > 3 weeks dictate visualization of the vocal cords.

  • Biopsy may be necessary to rule out cancer.

  • After excision, removal of the irritating source is necessary to prevent recurrence.

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