What is laryngeal nerve damage?

The superior and inferior laryngeal nerves in the throat control the movement and function of the larynx, also called the voice box. Significant breathing and speaking difficulties can arise if one or both nerves are damaged due to trauma, infection, surgical complications, or other causes. Laryngeal nerve damage is usually a minor problem that goes away on its own within a few months. In some cases, however, surgery is needed to repair severely damaged nerves and vocal cords. Patients may need voice therapy to regain their ability to speak clearly.

The larynx houses two bands of tissue called the vocal cords that stretch and compress to produce different pitches. The laryngeal nerves supply impulses from the brain to control your movement. The main consequence of damage to the laryngeal nerve is weakness or paralysis of the vocal cords. One or both leads may be affected, and depending on the severity of the nerve damage, the paralysis may be a temporary condition or cause lifelong speech difficulties.

Damage to the laryngeal nerve can have a number of different causes. Direct trauma to the throat and chest can damage the larynx, trachea, and underlying nerve tissue. People with chronic or recurrent laryngitis may experience symptoms if the inflammation of the vocal cords puts pressure on the nerves. A cancerous or benign tumor can form in the trachea, compressing the nerves and blood vessels in the area. Finally, some cases of laryngeal nerve damage occur after surgery on the thyroid gland, trachea, or other structure in the throat. Nerves are very delicate, and it is possible for a surgeon to accidentally cut or damage one during an operation.

Regardless of the cause, damage to the laryngeal nerve is likely to cause problems for patients. A person may be very hoarse and have noisy breathing. If speech is possible, it is usually in very quiet, uncomfortable tones. A person may also have trouble swallowing food, drinking liquids, and clearing their throat. Breathing and swallowing difficulties can be severe enough to warrant an immediate trip to the emergency room.

After stabilizing a patient's breathing, a doctor can diagnose laryngeal nerve damage by interpreting diagnostic imaging results. He or she tries to determine the extent of damage and swelling to the vocal cords and looks for signs of tumors, injuries, and infections. An endoscopic camera may be inserted down the throat to inspect the nerves and voice box more carefully. The underlying causes are adequately treated with medication or surgery.

You are likely to recover from minor nerve damage, and most patients simply need to rest for a month or three while the nerve tissue heals. Significant damage may require surgical intervention to preserve speech. The vocal cords can be realigned to promote clear, pitched noises despite paralysis. Some voice problems can be permanent even with surgery, but regular sessions with speech therapists can help people learn how to communicate effectively in their daily lives.

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