Every singer has experienced some scary moments when their voice suddenly gives out.
This can be frustrating at the best of times. But if you are out on the road or gigging frequently, it can be damaging to your career and confidence.
Why does you voice give out like this? Is it singing? Is it something else? Have you permanently damaged your vocal cords? If so, how can you get them back to a healthy state?
We’ll help you understand why you’ve been losing your voice and give you tips on getting healthy and staying healthy.
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Does Singing Damage Your Vocal Cords?
Singing with proper technique and with moderation should not do undue damage to your vocal cords. Unfortunately, many singers do not have perfect technique.
It is also common to overuse your voice by singing, talking loudly, and yelling in loud environments.
Overuse of the voice and pressure on the voice and vocal cords can eventually lead to problems with your vocal cords.
At first, these problems may be minor (like losing your voice for a day) but they can spiral into worse problems.
If your vocal cords are damaged and you continue to sing without fixing the root problem, you can eventually develop vocal nodules or vocal polyps. Nodules and polyps are considered serious damage to your vocal cords.
Nodules on the vocal cords are similar to the callouses that build up on your fingertips from playing guitar. They can be as small as a pinhead or as large as a pea, and despite being non-cancerous growths, they can be quite painful.
Vocal nodules will result in having a hoarse, raspy, tired-sounding voice that cracks and breaks faster than normal. Your singing range will be limited and you can experience shooting pain stretching from ear to ear. Yikes!
A famous example is Metallica‘s James Hetfield. After years of singing with bad technique, he developed nodes and callouses on his vocal cords. With the help of a vocal coach, he was able to get his voice back into shape.
Vocal polyps are swollen spots on one or both of the vocal folds. They are usually bigger than nodules. Whereas nodules are similar to callouses, polyps are analogous to blisters. Many of the symptoms are the same.
Warning Signs Of Damaged Vocal Cords
Watch out for these symptoms of damaged vocal cords. If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms regularly, you should consult with a vocal coach or speech therapist.
Hoarseness Over Longer Periods
Losing your voice or becoming hoarse for a day or two is annoying, and should be avoided. Losing your voice for over a week is a major problem.
Continuing to sing after losing your voice can eventually lead to the more serious vocal problems we discussed above.
Pain Or Tension During & After Singing
You should not need to push yourself or use a lot of energy to sing well. Singing with proper technique requires practice, but once you get the hang of it, it should come naturally.
If you feel that you need to push, belt, or reach for notes, this could be a sign that your vocal cords are damaged.
Similarly, if you feel tension in the jaw or throat after singing, you are most likely singing with poor technique and risking damage to your vocal cords.
After singing, check for tension. Place your palms on either cheek and pull down across your jaw and beside your throat. How does that feel?
Test this frequently after and during singing. If you feel lots of tension, stop singing and assess your technique.
You Experience Difficulty Singing Loudly
You should not be shouting notes, you should be singing. If you feel you must shout or yell to hit the right notes, you are doing damage to your vocal cords.
If you feel that you have to push harder or shout in order to reach a volume that was once comfortable to you, this could be a sign of damage to your vocal cords.
Limited Vocal Range
If you suddenly lose you higher vocal range, this could be a sign of damage to your vocal cords. Don’t panic – it is normal to have changes in your range day-to-day. However, if this problems persists, you may have an issue.
Make sure to warm up before singing. It makes a huge difference and will allow you to access your full range.
What Else Can Damage Your Vocal Cords?
Singing isn’t the only thing that can damage your vocal cords. Keep your eye out for these other causes of vocal damage:
Smoking can put you at an increased risk for cancer of the throat and irritation of the vocal folds. This can permanently change your voice and prevent you from singing for a long time. It is best to limit your smoking before and after singing, and quit if possible.
Alcohol & Caffeine
Alcohol, especially when combined with smoking, can also cause damage to your vocal cords. Alcohol and caffeine can cause your body to lose water and make the larynx dry. Alcohol also irritates the mucous membranes in the throat.
Limit the amount of alcohol you are drinking on days when you are using your voice. Instead, make sure you are well-hydrated with water.
Unchecked acid reflux can cause inflammation and injury to your vocal cords. Over time, this can change your voice. If you have persistent acid reflux, go see a doctor and discuss lifestyle changes and medication to help.
Talking Or Yelling Loudly
Many singers will sing with good technique all night long, but then get off stage and yell over top of music to speak to fans or band mates after shows. Do not do this! Insist on speaking at a normal volume. Yelling is very harmful to your voice.
How To Prevent Vocal Damage
Preventing vocal damage is a matter of taking care of your voice as you would take care of any other part of your body.
My number one piece of advice is to visit a vocal coach and/or speech therapist. They will teach you to speak and sing with proper technique. You will learn not to strain your voice. You will learn how to properly warm up and cool down your voice before and after singing.
You voice is an instrument and a muscle and should be treated with care. Athletes warm up, cool down, stretch, and rest. You must do the same with your voice.
Taking vocal lessons will also teach you to use your breath well. Supporting your voice with deep breaths from the chest while singing and talking will help you use your voice properly.
Finally, meeting with a vocal coach will help you learn to use microphones properly. Using a microphone will help you sing without straining your voice. Learning to use proper mic technique will make this effortless.
Drinking plenty of fluids and staying hydrated is important as well. This keeps the vocal cords lubricated and ready to sing. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they dry out the vocal cords and make them more susceptible to injury. Avoid using mouthwash or gargles that have alcohol in them for the same reason.
Take vocal rests. If you have a show or a series of shows, try not to talk much before and after the show. Some days, avoid talking at all, if possible. Consult with a vocal coach to make a vocal rest plan.
Beyond this advice, getting enough rest and having a healthy, active lifestyle will help you keep your voice in tip-top shape. Make sure to eat well and eat enough. Develop a relationship with exercise that keeps you healthy.
Above all, make sure you are getting enough rest and sleep. Being tired will affect your voice and limit your vocal range. Being tired also makes you sick, which makes you more susceptible to vocal damage.
How To Heal Vocal Damage
Healing vocal damage can be a challenge. As I mentioned, if vocal nodules or polyps develop and are left untreated, you may be left facing an invasive and potentially risky surgery.
Singers do not want to have surgery on their vocal cords, because it risks changing them!
Before surgery, you will be put on vocal rest. Most ENTs (ear, nose, and throat doctors) will prescribe complete vocal rest for a month or more.
This means no singing and very little to no talking for a month or more. That is going to be hard on you and your mental health, and will certainly take away your gigs!
In this case, prevention is better than a cure. Take care of your voice, learn proper singing techniques, and your voice will take care of you.
Final Thoughts On Damaging Your Vocal Cords While Singing
It is entirely possible to sing without damaging your vocal cords. It just requires care an practice.
See a vocal coach, work on your technique. Warm up your voice, cool down your voice, and avoid drinking and smoking too much. If you take care of your voice, you should be able to avoid permanent damage.