During speech, vocal cords vibrate faster than the naked eye can see—an average of 120 times per second for males and 230 times per second for females. With that amount of continual motion, vocal cords can dry easily and need to be moisturized to work effectively. Kristine Tanner from the Department of Communication Disorders in the McKay School has been studying vocal cord hydration since she was a doctoral candidate. Tanner recently completed more research on vocal cord hydration in patients with chronic vocal cord dryness.
Water and food do not touch the vocal cords as a person swallows, so Tanner was looking for a way to directly moisten them. “Drinking water is important for systemic hydration of the vocal cords, but there might be other ways we can manipulate hydration of the surface of vocal cords,” Tanner said. She likened this to putting lotion on the skin to moisturize. “So, what is the equivalent of putting lotion on the skin versus drinking water?”
In her new study, Tanner compared using a saline mist (saltwater solution) versus a water mist on subjects’ vocal cords. Her subjects have Primary Sjögren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease affecting more than four million people in the U.S. alone, with symptoms including dry eyes, mouth, and throat. In order to test the effectiveness of the saline treatment, Tanner dried out subjects’ vocal cords by blowing dry air on them. Then she attempted to reverse the dryness by giving subjects either the saline or water treatment orally through a nebulizer (a device that turns liquid into a mist that can be inhaled).
Tanner’s findings showed that the saline treatment was superior to the water mist treatment. “Patients reported that not only did their throat dryness decrease, but their mouth dryness and vocal effort reduced as well,” Tanner said. However, the effect is still short term, and Tanner has plans to conduct more research on dosage to determine a longer-term solution.
This research is also relevant for people whose voice dryness is not necessarily chronic. Tanner helped Dr. Ray Merrill from the Health Sciences Department conduct a survey with 500 students from BYU and UVU to examine the incidence and prevalence of voice problems. Not only were voice problems more common in the college population than was originally expected, but one of the most widespread symptoms associated with those problems was dryness. “So, what can we do for people, [whether] they’re exposed to dry air in general or . . . have chronic throat dryness?” Tanner asked.
Currently, Tanner is working with two graduate students to study vocal cord hydration in males. Males vocal cords are deeper in the body than females’ vocal cords, so they are less exposed to dry air. Tanner, her students, and Professor Arden Hopkin from the School of Music are looking at the effect of dryness and vocal hydration treatments on male singers and non-singers.
Tanner’s research article, titled “Comparing Nebulized Water Versus Saline after Laryngeal Desiccation Challenge in Sjögren’s Syndrome,” will be published in The Laryngoscope later this year.