Raise your hand if you think talking is something you do without considering the mechanics of the process. Well, until I lost my voice in early November, that’s what I thought. And the very unscientific poll I’ve conducted since that fateful day confirms I was not alone in my ignorance.
Good news! Two months later my voice is better than ever; however, I thought I’d share some of the surprising insights from the recovery process to help others avoid the loss of their voice—something most of us take for granted.
First, the backstory. I love to talk. Anyone who knows me will confirm I’m a talker. Whether it’s one-on-one, or delivering a speech to 500 people, talking is something that’s always come very naturally to me. My voice has also been an Achilles heel. If I get a cold, you can immediately hear it in my voice. If I talk too much at a party, I feel it in my voice. But it was never a major problem until the speech I gave in early November.
The room was beautiful, but the acoustics terrible. The 300 people in the audience were eating lunch which normally wouldn’t be a problem, but the sound system wasn’t working very well. The speaker who went before me struggled mightily to be heard throughout her presentation, so shouting was the only option. I wasn’t worried because I have a loud voice, but I was fighting a cold and had just delivered five others speeches in the weeks prior. So, I stepped to the podium and began to speak as loudly as possible. About five minutes into the speech I felt a pull or “snap” in my throat.
I didn’t think much of it at the time because the volume of my voice was unchanged so I knew it probably wasn’t a vocal chord. But when I got home, I could tell something was very wrong.
In addition to the usual hoarseness I felt if I overdid a speech with a cold, I couldn’t sustain talking for long periods of time. In other words, while I might not have sounded all that different, I had to exert an increasing amount of effort the longer I spoke.
At first I thought it would get better on its own, like it always did. I waited and continued going about my business, which I realized involves a lot of talking whether it’s talking to a client on the phone, or coordinating the day-to-day care of my family.
I communicated as much as I could via email. I matched the number of speeches I gave and calls I made to the stamina of my voice in an attempt (not always successful) to limit the amount of talking. But after two weeks, there were no visible signs of improvement. Needless to say, I panicked. I finally did what I probably should have done ten years ago—I called a doctor. And the amazing recovery process began.
I’m going to save the details of what transpired over the last six weeks, and cut right to the main insights that might helpful, or that I wish I’d known. I’m not a doctor, so this it not medical advice. It’s my layperson’s interpretation of what I’ve learned from the ear, nose and throat doctor, voice/speech therapist, and pilates instructor (yes, my pilates instructor) who’ve been helping me:
- Most of us don’t breathe correctly, and as a result, we don’t access the power of the breath when we speak and put unnecessary strain on our voices. Turns out that I am an upper-chest breather, which I’ve learned is the way most people breathe, especially women. And it’s wrong. We should all breathe deeply from our diaphragm, especially if you’re someone who speaks for a living. You put less strain on your voice and you can sustain speaking for longer periods of time. In the three weeks I’ve been working with the voice/speech therapist and my pilates instructor to shift my breathing, I’ve noticed a huge difference. It helps that I understand what deep, diaphragmatic breathing feels like from meditation, but once you consciously start breathing this way while sitting at your computer, driving in your car, and working out, you will begin to feel the difference in how you talk.
- There are over 20 muscles and tendons wrapped around your voice box—who knew! That snap or pull in my throat was one of the many muscles and tendons that wrap around your voice box. Because my voice was already weak from the cold and my previous speaking engagements, that extra exertion caused me to pull a throat muscle/tendon which then contributed to the weakness I felt. Now that the muscle is healed, I am much more aware of why singers warm up their throat muscles before a performance. I realize now that I was like a long distance runner who never stretched. Recipe for disaster.
- Untreated acid reflux causes many voice problems. My brother, the doctor, thinks that every ENT is too quick to attribute all voice problems to untreated reflux but in my case it is. It turns out that there are two types of reflux, one you feel and one you often don’t feel. I have the later type which is why I was never treated. Now on Prilosec for four weeks, I’ve noticed a big improvement. Here’s a clue this might be your problem: do you clear your throat a lot? If you do, it might be reflux. I always thought my throat clearing was allergies, which brings me to the next insight…
- Food allergies can contribute to weakness in your voice. I’ve always known I’m sensitive to wheat and dairy, but I finally eliminated them from my diet. This dramatically reduced the overall amount of congestion and general stuffiness that always made my voice have to work harder. I thought this was normal. Turns out it isn’t.
- Tea with lemon, honey and turmeric is the magical throat elixir. Drink as many cups of this as you can stand and it will work wonders. (Thanks to Judy Martin for this tip).
As is often the case in life, one of the most frustrating experiences has turned into a gift. My voice is even better than before, and hopefully what I’ve learned might help someone else who struggles with voice-related challenges, especially as we move into cold and flu season. Here’s to speaking with strength and clarity in 2009! Happy New Year!