About 10 percent of the workers in the United States are heavy occupational voice users, which means they use their voices so much during the workday that they face higher risks of voice disorders.
This group includes members of the clergy, counselors, telemarketers, singers, lawyers, tour guides, stage actors, and more, plus three million elementary and secondary school teachers who represent the largest group of professionals who use their voices as a primary tool of trade. Voice disorders can be a frequent occupational hazard of teaching.
What is a voice disorder?
A voice disorder is any problem that impairs the voice from functioning adequately to meet the demands set by the speaker. Common symptoms include hoarseness, effortful/strained speaking, vocal fatigue, shortness of breath with speech and throat tightness, or pain with voice use.
While it’s common to experience hoarseness from colds or upper respiratory infections, a voice disorder extends beyond cold symptoms and lasts for several weeks or longer.
How common are voice disorders in teachers, and in the general population?
- 11% of teachers and 6% of non-teachers report currently having a voice disorder
- 58% of teachers reported a history of voice disorders
- 29% of non-teachers report a history of voice disorders
Teachers of music, drama, and performing arts are significantly more at risk than other teachers — even more than physical education teachers and coaches.
What are risk factors for developing voice problems?
The biggest risk factor for developing a risk factor is occupation — anyone who relies heavily on their voice to do their job is at greater risk. A lesser known risk factor is gender. Women are much more at risk for voice problems, in part because when they speak, their vocal chords vibrate at roughly twice the speed of men’s, which puts twice the load on their voices.
Other risk factors include:
- Voice use patterns and demands
- Esophageal reflux
- Frequent colds/sinus infections
- Chemical exposures
What can teachers and others do to prevent vocal injury?
- Be aware of how much, how loud, how often you use your voice and avoid extended periods of voice use as well as yelling/screaming
- Use a microphone if you talk frequently or to large groups
- Follow reflux precautions, such as going to bed on empty stomach
- Use hand hygiene and other infection prevention measures
- Rest your voice if hoarseness or vocal fatigue occurs. Hoarseness is a symptom of a problem – don’t just keep pushing through
- Try breathing, mindfulness, or other relaxation strategies if you’re under significant anxiety or stress
- Don’t smoke
What can you do if your voice is injured or if you think you have a voice disorder?
If hoarseness and other symptoms last three weeks or longer outside of other illness symptoms, see an ear, nose, and throat physician or a speech pathologist who has expertise in evaluating and treating voice disorders Treatments may include voice therapy, medications, or possibly surgery.