Vocal cord dysfunction is characterized by symptoms such as tightness in the chest or throat, noisy inhalation, and shortness of breath. These symptoms are very uncomfortable, and occur because the vocal cords close up instead of opening while breathing. They are triggered by such things as illness (upper respiratory infections), smoking, strong odors, exercise, or even strong emotions. The good news is, there are some exercises you can do to help.
Exercises for vocal cord dysfunction
The best treatment for vocal cord dysfunction is exercise. You may be referred to a speech therapist who will work with you on various vocal cord exercises that will help you to relax them to prevent them from closing up when exposed to triggers. Here are some examples:
Diaphragmatic breathing: First, it’s important to know how to breathe optimally. You’ve likely heard of belly breathing and chest (or thoracic) breathing, but there’s also diaphragmatic breathing. Of course, all air goes through our lungs, and none actually ever enters the diaphragm or belly. But with diaphragmatic breathing, you are taking deep breaths that result in movement of the lower chest area in and out, rather than the upper chest or belly. Get into a comfortable sitting position and breathe as you normally would. Note whether it’s your chest that predominantly moves in and out with each breath, or your belly. Practice taking deep breaths, imagining the air going to the deepest parts of your lungs, yet not quite as deep so as to go into your belly. When done right, you should feel slight movement in your lower chest with each breath. If you find this to be tricky or hard to tell, try the exercise while laying down.
“Ssss” breathing: Sit in a comfortable position with back straight and shoulders relaxed. Breathe in and out slowly and measuredly for half a minute or so to ease into the exercise. Ensure that you are breathing in and out through the diaphragm as explained above. Then, with each exhale, make a “sssss” or hissing sound. The act of hissing with each exhale creates pressure in your windpipe ensuring your vocal cords stay open. Practice this daily. When you have an episode of vocal cord dysfunction, use this technique.
Breathing spurts: Sit in a comfortable upright position. Breathe in and out slowly, using diaphragmatic breathing as explained above. Then, after inhaling, breathe out in small spurts. You may find it easier to make small breath sounds like “huh, huh, huh.” Don’t use your voice when making these sounds, they should come out as a whisper.
7:11 breathing: This is a good way to calm yourself down. Again, using diaphragmatic breathing the entire time, breathe in for a count of 7. Then, exhale a bit more slowly, on a count of 11. This type of breathing can counteract hyperventilation and is a good technique to use when you feel an episode of vocal cord dysfunction coming on.
A speech therapist can work with you to ensure you are doing these techniques correctly. Your primary care physician or an ENT doctor can refer you to a speech therapist who is familiar with working with clients with vocal cord dysfunction.