Functional Dysphonia: Vocal Cord Massage Brings Mom's Voice Back

PHOTO: Erin Martin of Wilmington, Del., endured three months without a voice until the Cleveland Clinic?s Dr. Claudio Milstein massaged her vocal cords.
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After coming down with a cold in May 2010, Erin Martin could only muster a whisper for weeks and then months.

"I woke up on a Sunday with a really bad sore throat," she said. "A week and a half went by and I didn't have a voice."

Three months later, the hairstylist who rarely found herself at a loss for words with clients was rendered voiceless.

Martin of Wilmington, Del., said she thought she would never speak again -- that was until she visited Dr. Claudio Milstein at the Cleveland Clinic's Head and Neck Institute and was diagnosed with functional dysphonia, an abnormal tightening of the muscles around the voice box.

After 15 minutes of massaging and manipulating Martin's vocal cords, Milstein had the mother of four laughing -- and crying -- and speaking in her regular voice.

"It just felt so great, like it was a dream," she said.

No Voice? Doctors Have No Answers

Before she traveled to the Cleveland Clinic, Martin said the eight or so doctors she saw were perplexed by her condition.

"They were like, 'You should wait another week, give it another month. Call a specialist,'" she said.

Nothing in Martin's life was the same -- not at her kids' baseball games, not at the salon and not at home with her husband and kids.

"At that point, I was getting depressed," she said. "Everything was just hard. Just things you took for granted. ... You couldn't do it."

"The un-fun part was that she had to bang the wall to wake us up in the morning," said 7-year-old daughter Hayley Martin. "She would have to ask someone else to talk for her."

Twelve-year-old Alex Martin said she was stressed out. "Everyone thought it was going to be like a month and after a month went by, everyone was worrying," Alex Martin said. "It felt like two years."

"We weren't talking the same way we did," said husband Tom Martin. "It was like I wasn't married almost. A lot of things we did, we weren't doing together."

Voiceless: Possible Answer in the News?

Erin Martin said one day her brother and friend told her about a story they'd heard in the news.

"They called and said, 'You gotta listen to this woman. She sounds just like you,'" she said.

The woman in the news had functional dysphonia, in which the vocal cords get very tight and locked in position, making them unable to vibrate to produce sound.

Martin said she was skeptical but made an appointment at the Cleveland Clinic and drove seven hours to get there on her birthday.

Voiceless: 'It's Not a Prank Call. It's Me'

After five minutes of massage and manipulation, hints of her voice were starting to appear. Fifteen minutes later, Martin was laughing. "I am going to cry," she said.

Milstein, who specializes in voice and throat disorders at the Voice Center, said functional dysphonia was common after an upper respiratory condition, cold for flu or after a trauma.

He said being able to help patients was very rewarding.

"Usually in one intervention you can make a huge difference and improve their quality of life right away," Milstein said. "Sometimes I see patients that have had this condition for years and they are able to regain their voice in one session."

When Martin called home, her son didn't believe it was really her. "Are you sure it's not a prank call?" he said. "No, it's not a prank call. It's me," she responded.

She says she's gotten her voice back and her life. "My vocal cords work right and my voice is loud," she said.

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