A non-life-threatening neurological disorder in which the muscles of the larynx involuntarily spasm and interfere with the voice. Spasmodic dysphonia (SD) is a focal dystonia, in this case involving the larynx—i.e., laryngeal dystonia. Laryngeal dystonia typically affects the voice, but can occasionally also affect breathing (respiratory dystonia). The term spasmodic dysphonia refers specifically to voice-affecting laryngeal dystonia.
Adductor vs. abductor:
There are two main variants of spasmodic dysphonia (SD). In the first variant, adductor SD (AD-SD), the vocal cords are pressed together excessively, intermittently cutting off words or giving the voice a constant strangled quality; this variant comprises 90% of the cases of SD. In the second variant, abductor SD (AB-SD), the vocal cords are abruptly and momentarily pulled apart while talking, causing the voice to drop out completely or down to a whispery, breathy sound. There are some cases in which a person has both of these variants: this is called mixed AB-AD SD.
Classic vs. tonic:
Another distinction that can be made is between classic variant and tonic variant cases of SD. In classic variant SD, the spasms cause phonatory arrests—that is, while the person is speaking, intermittent words or syllables are choked off (with AD-SD) or drop out (with AB-SD). In tonic variant SD, the spasms are more continuously sustained, so that the voice continuously sounds either strained (with AD-SD) or breathy (with AB-SD), but without any actual phonatory arrests. Because the presence of phonatory arrests is the symptom most often associated with SD, tonic variant SD goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed far more frequently than does classic variant SD.
Treatment for spasmodic dysphonia:
There is no definitive “cure” for SD, but for most patients, periodic injections of Botox™ into the muscles of the larynx help a great deal, if there is optimal dosage and placement. These injections relax the malfunctioning muscles of the larynx, thereby minimizing the spasms and their impact on the voice. The effect of an injection typically lasts a few months, and then another injection is needed. For those having difficulty getting good results with Botox™ therapy, see our video below “Spasmodic Dysphonia: When Botox Disappoints.”
The leading surgical treatment currently offered for SD, Selective Laryngeal Adductor Denervation-Reinnervation, can be an option for individuals with the AD-SD variant. However, no treatment for SD works satisfactorily for all. The history of each of the several surgical treatments for SD always includes some failures.
Speech therapy is another treatment sometimes suggested for SD. While there are strong and even passionate individual proponents of speech therapy, the consensus view is that speech therapy is not expected to substantially improve the voice’s capabilities or reduce spasms other than perhaps in the therapy room1. A brief course of speech therapy can be very helpful for patient education and perhaps a search for sensory tricks. Much confusion surrounds this subject, because individuals who have a nonorganic voice disorder can be mistakenly diagnosed with SD, and nonorganic voice disorders are routinely “cured” with speech therapy alone.
AD-SD (1 of 2)
Sustained, clear phonation, standard light. Note vibratory blur of the vocal cord margins. The false vocal cords (lines) are in normal relation to the true vocal cords.
AB-SD (1 of 4)
Prephonatory instant, with arytenoid cartilages involuntarily positioned apart. Mostly tonic position giving voice relatively constant breathiness.
AB-SD (2 of 4)
Phonatory blur, standard light. Again note the separation of the arytenoid cartilages posteriorly (upper end of the photo), and broad vibratory blur, both consistent with breathy voice.
AB-SD (3 of 4)
Occasionally, patient is able to bring posterior cords together for an instant of normal-sounding voice.
Abductor spasmodic dysphonia patient (1 of 4)
Vocal cords in normal breathing position, in a person with abductor spasmodic dysphonia (SD). The next three photos show how the vocal cord spasms seen with SD can get worse when the person performs more cognitively loaded or involved tasks (that is, the person has to think more). This pattern is related to the widespread understanding that SD's symptoms can be task-specific.
Limited abductor spasms (2 of 4)
When making voice with guttural vocal fry or sustained creaky falsetto, this person is able to keep the vocal cords together, at least part of the time.
Increased abductor spasms (3 of 4)
When the person tries to sustain a sung tone (slightly more cognitively loaded), the vocal cords involuntarily separate, producing a very breathy voice.
Adductory spasm (1 of 2)
Continuous phonation, standard light. Note the position of the false cords in relation to each other, and also the distance between the anterior face of the arytenoids and the petiole of the epiglottis.
Sense of instability (1 of 3)
This person had a major voice change after thyroidectomy for a large goiter. Within 2 months, voice recovered fully--except for a sense of instability. The PCA-only paresis is not the explanation because voice-making muscles (TA + LCA) are intact. And in fact vocal capability testing shows that both yell and projected voice are normal. The visual finding here of vocal cord bowing and capacious ventricle do not count as a breathing position finding with PCA-only paresis due to the unopposed action of LCA muscle, combined with an uncontracted TA muscle, both of which cause pseudo-bowing.
Vibratory amplitude (2 of 3)
During phonation under strobe light, with TA tensing, "bowing" disappears. Furthermore the vibratory "blur" at the margin of the left fold (right of photo) is equal to the right (left of photo), telling us that vibratory amplitude is approximately the same on both sides.
Young singer (1 of 4)
This young soprano has had to put singing to the side due to a peculiar instability at a very specific part of her singing range: approximately G4 to B4. Speaking voice is completely normal. Above and below G4 to B4 the voice works well. Here, during somewhat distant view during breathing, no mucosal abnormality is seen.
Phonation (2 of 4)
During phonation at high pitch designed to reveal margin swelling, there is a slight gap of “physiologic bowing” but arytenoids seem to approximate well.
Closed phase (3 of 4)
Closed phase of vibration at G4 (392 Hz). Nothing significant is seen in this admittedly somewhat distant view.
Swelling? (1 of 2)
The vocal cords of a physical education teacher with mild, intermittent ‘hoarseness’ and cracking of voice. Given her occupation, the mind goes to “voice abuse” and the margin swelling seen here might play into the diagnosis of “vocal overdoer with mucosal injury.” However, the vocal capability battery (voice testing) protects from a misdiagnosis.
Spasmodic dysphonia (2 of 2)
During the vocal capability testing (part 2 of the Integrative Diagnostic Model), one hears no significant mucosal swelling phenomenology (during application of vocal cord swelling checks), but instead a quivery, jittery instability. The actual diagnosis? Spasmodic dysphonia.
Ludlow CL. Treatment for spasmodic dysphonia: limitations of current approaches. Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2009; 17(3): 160–165. ↩