When you hear the term “occupational voice user”, what profession immediately comes to mind? Singer? Actor? Public speaker? Although we have plenty of those in Orlando, an occupational voice user is anyone whose voice is essential to their job. Teachers, attorneys, business professionals and customer service representatives make up a large portion of occupational voice users. So what happens when they experience vocal problems that keep them out of work?

bari-ruddy“People we see in our office are often losing money and losing time from work, so it’s an important issue,” says Director of The Voice Care Center at The Ear, Nose, Throat and Plastic Surgery Associates and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Central Florida, Bari Hoffman Ruddy, Ph.D.

In fact, according to www.OHSonline.com, a 2001 article estimated that as many as 28 million workers in the United States experience voice problems every day; and of those, teachers alone resulted in an annual “cost to society” of $2.5 billion.

“The core of so much that we love – singing, laughing, talking with our friends and family as well as our livelihood – lies in our voice,” says Ruddy.

“It’s true, the voice is something that is often taken for granted,” adds Dr. Jeffrey J. Lehman, medical director of The Voice Care Center. “Most people don’t pay attention to their voice until an issue develops, and by then the problem is usually more significant than it needs to be.”

Common Occupational Voice Issues

The two most common occupational voice disorders often occur together: hoarseness and poor vocal endurance.

Hoarseness, or other voice changes, interfere with the quality and clarity of the voice which often results in difficulty for listeners.

Poor voice endurance results in vocal fatigue, lower volume, frequent repetition and increased effort to produce sound.

“Risk factors for the issues include trauma to the vocal folds caused by loud talking, voice fatigue, poor air quality, background noise and stress,” says Lehman.

Biological risk factors also play a role and include smoking, alcohol use, medical history and physical health.

“Problems with vocal quality, respiratory control and fatigue may lead to negative occupational outcomes,” says Ruddy. “This may leave individuals unable to perform their work related duties at optimal level, unable to complete a full work schedule, or out of work if they cannot meet the vocal demands of their profession or required by their employment.”

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of voice loss for occupational voice users vary somewhat, but experts say that one of the best things you can do is listen to what your voice is trying to tell you.

“It’s best to identify your own risk factors, signs and symptoms, and seek medical attention if you have hoarseness unrelated to an illness for two or more weeks,” states Ruddy. “If you smoke and are experiencing hoarseness you should also consider seeking medical attention.”

Signs and symptoms of voice problems may include, but are not limited to:

  • Gravelly voice
  • Pitch breaks
  • Inability to talk
  • Hoarseness
  • Whispering
  • Breathiness
  • Throat pain
  • Chronic cough or throat clearing
  • Increased vocal effort
  • Poor vocal energy
  • Throat soreness

Tips for Occupational Voice Users

Although voice problems can arise from a variety of sources –including voice overuse or misuse, cancer, infection or injury – the tips for home/preventative treatment remain largely the same for occupational voice users. To help prevent voice problems and maintain a healthy voice you should consider:

  • Drinking Water: Staying well hydrated is essential to maintaining your voice, says Ruddy. You should consume between 6-8 glasses of water a day. Remaining hydrated optimizes the throat’s mucous production, which helps the vocal cords maintain lubrication.
  • Not Smoking: In addition to all of the negative side effects that come with smoking, breathing firsthand or secondhand fumes can cause irritation and swelling of the vocal cords.
  • Giving Your Voice a Rest: You should rest your voice periodically throughout the day, no matter your profession. Avoiding constant cheering or yelling over loud backgrounds can also help you maintain your voice.
  • Avoiding Dry  Environments: “Excessively dry environments for long periods of time may affect the voice by drying the outer vocal fold layers,” says Ruddy. “This results in making the folds less pliable, which means more effort must be exerted to sustain vibration.”
  • Minimizing Throat Clearing: Ruddy says that clearing your throat is essentially like slapping your vocal cords together, which may cause irritation. Consider taking a small sip of water instead of clearing your throat when the urge arises.

“Our voice is one of our most valuable resources, both at work in our professional lives and outside of work in our personal lives,” Ruddy says. “Proper care and use of the voice will give you the best chance for a healthy voice that will last a lifetime.”