Friday, February 15, 2008
Caring for your cords
By Val Willingham
CNN Medical News producer


When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Julie Andrews. I would run down the hill behind my home, throwing my arms in the air and screaming out the lyrics, "The hills are alive..." And I loved her in "Mary Poppins" -- flying through the air with an umbrella, dancing with penguins, jumping in and out of chalk pictures! To me, she was supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

But now that I'm older, I have come to admire Ms. Andrews, not only for her acting, but also for her magnificent voice. I even have her as a playlist on my iPod. So it was sad when I heard she had lost it because of a surgical mishap on her vocal cords.

Although they are two of the smallest muscles in the body, vocal cords, which are also called vocal folds, do an awful lot of work. Vibrating up to 400 times a second, they create sound when we breathe through them. Yet as we age, many of us abuse our voices without even knowing it. "The voice is an instrument," says voice therapist Susan Miller. "We need to learn how to play it. Many times we don't warm it up."

The best thing for our vocal cords: Drink lots of water. Vocal cords need to be wet and relaxed to vibrate. As we age we don't produce as much saliva, and keeping our vocal cords hydrated is important. Also, cut down on the caffeine and alcohol. They can dry out your throat. .

Exercising your cords is also a good idea. Vocal folds can lose a little bit of tone -- and then they don't meet together. Try lip vibrations, or hum in the shower for a few minutes before you start your day. That keeps your vocal muscles in shape as you age.

Medication can also affect the cords. Medicines for blood pressure and heart ailments can dry the throat. Health conditions like acid reflux, common in your 40s and 50s, can really affect the voice, causing a raspiness and change in pitch. That's because during the day, acid comes up and can spill over the vocal folds.

And give your voice a rest. Professional singers or speakers, like Julie Andrews, sometimes scar their folds. She actually grew polyps on her vocal cords, requiring the surgery that robbed her of her beautiful soprano voice.

Have you noticed that your voice has changed over time?

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I couldn't agree more - as a trainer I give three-day courses, speaking eight hours a day each day, and I've found that drinking sips of water all day and avoiding caffeine makes the difference between completing the course with a full voice and whispering through the last half day. -Eric in NC.
Hey, wouldn't it be more accurate to say that Julie Andrews lost her voice because of polyps (and likely smoking, having seen her movies). Surgery may not have cured her, but her voice was obviously not at her peak in the first place (otherwise why have the surgery.)
The comment about drinking water makes it seem as if the water runs right over the vocal cords and moistens them. In reality, the vocal cords are not allowed to touch food or water upon swallowing because the epiglottis folds down to cover the entrance to the trachea - channeling food and water into the esophagus. Therefore, the water tip is more about keeping hydrated, in general.
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