It’s Movember! Let’s Raise Awareness About Men’s Vocal Health

Movember is a great time to talk about men’s vocal health, a subject that is often not brought to the forefront of conversations.  How are men’s voices affected as they age?   As you pass through adulthood, your voice may not remain as consistent as you would like it to. 

Our voice is part of our identity- it defines who we are and how people perceive us.  When “our voice” is no longer “our” voice and we cannot use it like we always have, it can be quite devastating and leave us feeling lost and frustrated. 

The larynx is a complicated system.  It can be affected by almost anything that happens in the body.”

Some of the causes responsible for your changes in pitch, volume, timber, or tone are normal and completely harmless—but others can be harmful and /or life-threatening. Check out what’s behind your vocal changes, and what you can do about it.


Voice Change #1: Your Pitch Rises

As we age, muscle mass decreases all over the body.  This includes the muscles in your larynx which house the vocal cords.  As the muscle fibers within the folds become less bulky, your voice sounds higher.  The vocal instrument, in a sense, is shrinking and thus produces a higher sound.   The bigger the instrument the lower the sound it produces, the smaller the instrument, the higher the sound it produces. 

What to do about your voice change:

Maintain muscle mass by working out regularly.  Use your voice regularly as well.  Speak at your natural pitch – try not to produce excessively lower pitches or excessively higher pitches.  Your best pitch is your modal pitch which can be found from producing a relaxed “Uh hum.”
If you have a big vocal day ahead of you, or will be talking in front of a large group, prepare for it by warming up the voice for a few minutes with lip or tongue trills, make siren noises or hum through the scale.   Take breaks with your voice as well.  If you are speaking for hours at a time, drink a lot of water to keep hydrated and take a break -no talking for 2 minutes in between your talking time. 

Voice change #2: You Can’t Project

When you’re stressed, the muscles inside and surrounding your larynx tense up. This squeezes the vocal cord musculature and limits how much and how efficiently your vocal cords can vibrate, reducing your resonance and your vocal power.  As a result, you won’t be able to speak as loudly or project your voice.
Researchers state that your lung capacity begins diminishing at about age 35. This limits the amount of air available to amplify your voice and means more effort to raise you volume. 
Vocal cord bowing is apparent in our vocal cord musculature when aging also.  This prevents the middle edges of the vocal cords from touching and thus decreases the intensity of your voice as air escapes through the gap in your vocal cords when voicing. 

What to do about your voice change:

Work on cutting stress, exercise more and find ways to relieve stress on a daily basis.  Check you posture-  If you keep your head slouched forward and down, you may not be able to take in as much air when you speak and will not have enough power underneath your cords to set them into vibration, which would make projecting more difficult. 
But if loss of vocal power limits your ability to do your job or communicate, see a laryngologist, and a speech language pathologist who specializes in voice. They can first check to makes sure you’re not suffering from health problems—such as lung diseases—that limit your airflow. If you’re in the clear, they can offer training and vocal exercises to strengthen your voice. 


Voice change #3: It feels harder or hurts to speak, especially for long periods of time

As we age, mucus membranes in your vocal folds dry out which can cause a decrease in vocal endurance. That’s because your vocal cords need to move and stretch to create each sound-producing vibration. If the cords are stiff, they are not able to vibrate as efficiently and it is more work to create voice. 
Common culprits drying you out include not drinking enough water, overdoing it on coffee, alcohol, or menthol products or taking certain medications like antihistamines, blood pressure meds, or antidepressants, and smoking.

What to do about your voice change:

Drink a lot of water (8 glasses or more a day) and not just right before you speak. The last sip might moisten your lips, but it’s your overall hydration status that affects how well your vocal folds vibrate. Cut back on dehydrating agents such as coffee, alcohol and menthol – and if you take these, have equal parts water to help balance your hydration.
If you’re taking any of the meds mentioned above and notice difficulty speaking, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to offer advice on offsetting these side effects or even switch your prescription.
Smoking is a huge no-no and not only causes throat cancers, but also degrades lung function to support the voice and can cause acid reflux. 

Voice change #4: You’re hoarse for a few days

If you’re sick with a cold or flu, you can likely blame acute laryngitis for your temporary hoarseness. The virus can land on your vocal cords, causing swelling that alters the way they vibrate, making you sound deeper and huskier.   
But if your voice grows gravelly the day after your team blows the playoffs or you sang karaoke, it’s probably due to vocal overuse or abuse.
On any given day, your vocal cords collide millions of times.  When you yell, scream, or sing without proper training, they do so more forcefully, producing shearing forces and trauma that leave the delicate tissue of your vocal cords torn or swollen. Unnecessary sounds, such as play voices when teaching, or clearing your throat can add to the damage.

What to do about your voice change:

Hoarseness from illness or overuse usually resolves within a few days, but while you’re still coughing and clearing your throat, the tissues in your larynx are prone to further injury. So even if you feel better physically after an illness, rest vocally until you sound better too, or you risk prolonging the problem. 
That means stop screaming at your TV and your kids!   You might also be straining your voice in some surprising ways. For instance, using your phone while driving—raising your voice over highway noise— is a subtle but significant source of vocal strain. Just think about how much you have to turn up the radio when you speed up, that’s how much louder you’re talking, often without realizing it.
If your work requires you to project your voice frequently, such as a singer, teacher, sales person, or exercise instructor, consider investing in vocal training and use a voice amplifier so that you can project without damaging your voice.   Learning to use your voice properly can reduce your risk of short and long-term damage and also make you more effective at your job. Learning to use diaphragmatic breath support to project versus pushing the voice from your larynx can significantly reduce the hoarseness and strain you feel.  


Voice change #5: Your voice is raspy for more than a couple weeks

In addition to short-term swelling, viruses and vocal overuse can also contribute to problems like lesions, cysts, nodules, and scarring that usually don’t go away on their own.

Though it’s probably the least common cause of vocal changes, laryngeal cancer often has no signs except for an increasingly raspy voice, states researchers (The disease strikes about 10,000 U.S. men per year, compared to more than 222,000 with lung cancer and 161,000 with prostate cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.)

Lasting hoarseness that persists for more than a couple weeks without other cold-like symptoms may also occur because tumors in your lungs, thyroid, or chest are pressing on the nerve that controls your larynx. 
Then there’s acid reflux disease, in which stomach fluids back up into your esophagus. This can also damage your larynx and cause a hoarse sound. However, it’s rare for vocal changes to be the only sign—hoarseness due to reflux is usually accompanied by some combination of heartburn, throat irritation and clearing, or a sense of post-nasal drip, researchers say. 

What to do about your voice change:

Any hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks should be evaluated by an otolaryngologist (ENT); preferably one with special vocal training. You can see your primary doctor first, but you really should push for a referral for a more in depth evaluation of the problem. 
For benign vocal conditions, speech language therapy, surgery, laser therapy, or an injection of collagen to rebuild the structure of the vocal cords may help. In most cases, your voice can be restored. 

Voice change #6. You sound breathy, strained, or tight

Persistent vocal changes other than hoarseness often point to a neurologic cause. Muscle spasms in the larynx—a condition called spasmodic dysphonia—make your voice seem tight and strangled, with frequent breaks in pitch. 
One or both vocal cords can become paralyzed due to injury, tumors in the thyroid or chest, stroke, or a mysterious virus. When this happens, you might sound monotone, quiet, or only be able to utter a second or two of speech. Often, you’ll have trouble swallowing or breathing too, and may choke or cough while trying to eat.

Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative condition affecting nerve cells in the brain, causes difficulty moving muscles throughout the body—including in the larynx, mouth, and face. People with the condition often have soft, slurred, or monotone speech.

What to do about your voice change:

See your doctor and request a referral to an otolaryngologist, for any unexplained changes to your voice that don’t go away after a couple of weeks. He or she will put you through a voice evaluation to test your loudness, pitch, strength, and endurance.  He may recommend voice therapy by a speech-language pathologist, which may include exercises to reduce tension such as laryngeal massage, relaxation techniques, or vocal strengthening for a breathy voice.   
You might undergo a videostroboscopy analysis, which uses a strobe light to watch your vocal cords in action. Voice therapy or surgical interventions may be recommended depending on the results of these assessments. 
Bottom line is:   our voice is a precious instrument that can wear down over time if we don’t take care of it.  Men may notice differences in their voice as they age, but with guidance and knowledge in this area, some, or most of these changes can be prevented. 

Linda has a passion for the field of voice and resonance disorders and transgender communication. She also services a diverse range of clientele with a variety of needs including acquired brain injury, degenerative disease, stroke, accent reduction, articulation, language and literacy needs. She genuinely loves helping her clients succeed and improve with their goals and uses a client-centered approach to guide them in their treatments.