Kennedy's Voice Draws Attention to Rare Disorder
RFK Jr.'s public speeches piqued curiosity about his vocal cords.
July 3, 2008— -- When Robert Kennedy Jr. appeared on "Larry King Live" Monday, he hoped to gain attention for energy conservation. But as the public listened to his stilted, strained voice, he also drew attention to another cause.
Following the broadcast, Internet forum questions about his health multiplied. Was it a cold, or was it something serious like lung cancer? What made him sound as if he was choking up?
In truth, Kennedy has a condition called spasmodic dysphonia, a specific form of an involuntary movement disorder called dystonia that affects only the voice box.
Requests for comment and calls to Kennedy's press representative at his Pace Environmental Clinic office were not returned.
Although the condition is by no means life-threatening, it is life-changing for the few who have it. Spasmodic dysphonia experts estimate the condition affects only .02 percent of the population. It often strikes in midlife between ages 20 and 50, and it appears in women twice as often as in men.
Patients say losing your voice hits people in their primary, intimate connection to the outside world and affects nearly every aspect of their lives.
For the few doctors who study the rare disorder, it is an uphill battle to get it diagnosed, understand its causes and train doctors across America to treat it.
You can hear audio of people with adductor spasmodic dysphonia and the less-common abductor spasmodic dysphonia at the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association Web site
Lorraine Rappaport started noticing her voice changing back in the early 1980s when she was working as a school counselor in California.
"It came on gradually; it isn't like anything that happens overnight," said Rappaport. "My voice got very hoarse, and there were certain letters of the alphabet at the beginning of words that I could not say easily."
Slowly, her condition started to interfere with her job and her communication with others.
"There were times where I had to stop and think, because I wanted to avoid a word because I couldn't say it clearly."
Rappaport started avoiding words that began with "h," "ch," "k" or "c" -- a difficult task in English. She had never heard of spasmodic dysphonia at the time, and physicians kept telling her the problem was psychological, especially since she was getting a divorce.