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Interview with Dr. Katherine Yung: Diagnosing and Treating Voice Disorders

Audio Interview

Hear a Patient Power interview with Dr. Katherine Yung, a head and neck surgeon at the UCSF Voice and Swallowing Center.

Interview Transcript

Andrew Schorr:

Your voice is your unique calling card, and when it's damaged it can negatively affect your communication skills and maybe even your livelihood. Coming up, we'll hear from an expert from UCSF Medical Center who treats patients with voice problems and voice disorders. It's all next on Patient Power.

Hello and welcome to Patient Power sponsored by UCSF Medical Center. I'm Andrew Schorr.

Think about what makes you you. One of the things is your voice, and it is so important in so many interactions. But think about your job. What if you're a teacher, or you're in sales, you talk on the phone all the time? What if you're that news anchor person? Your voice, and the quality of it, is vital. You don't have to be an opera singer for it to be important.

And so there are issues that come up. Now, sometimes it may be you just had a cold and you lose your voice, and that's happened to me, and then I couldn't do any broadcasting of course for a couple days, but it comes back with rest, and the virus that caused it, my body beats it. Also I know I've yelled at my kids, I've regretted it, but sometimes that's strained my voice. Or you're a San Francisco Giants fan and you yell at a game, hopefully they won, and you strained your voice.

But there are other things that can happen too. Maybe it's the way you use your voice and that is inefficient and can cause voice problems. Or maybe you can develop what the doctors call a lesion on your vocal cords, is the way we think of it — they talk of vocal folds. Maybe it's a polyp, some kind of benign growth. What do you do about that?

Well to help us understand is Dr. Katherine Yung. She is an assistant professor of laryngology at UCSF, and she works at the UCSF Voice and Swallowing Center. Doctor, thanks for being with us.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Thank you for inviting me, Andrew.

Understanding Voice Disorders

Andrew Schorr:

So we'll put aside yelling at the game and yelling at the kids and getting over a cold. There are people who after a while maybe are not using their voice efficiently, and so that can cause problems. Am I right?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yeah, that's right. People don't really think about how they're using their voice, how they're using their own voices, but voice is a combination of breath support and vocal fold tension, and so when that balance becomes disrupted, voice problems or vocal fold lesions can result.

Andrew Schorr:

All right. So vocal fold lesions are on your vocal cords, and you have two, right, a left and a right?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Correct.

Andrew Schorr:

It's like channels of stereo, left and right. OK. So what does that look like? What is that? Because it changes the quality of your voice. I don't know if you necessarily become hoarse or it changes it. What do they look like?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

So the vocal folds are in a V formation, and they move in and out with your breath. So when you take a breath the vocal folds pop out into a symmetric V, and air can go down into your lungs. And when you talk or when you swallow, your vocal cords come together and touch so that the vocal folds can vibrate to create voice.

Andrew Schorr:

And when you develop a lesion, so a nodule or a polyp, what is that like — is it just like a little bump?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yeah. So nodules can be small, little bumps or calluses on both vocal folds, or a polyp can be a growth on one vocal cord. And what happens is it disrupts the closure of the vocal cords, so they can't touch properly and air leaks in and around the lesion.

Andrew Schorr:

All right. So then your voice sounds different.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Right. So the difference in the closure disrupts the vibration and creates the rough quality or the raspiness that you hear.

Andrew Schorr:

So it's kind of like violin strings that are wearing, I guess, or have little bumps on the violin strings, violin wouldn't sound as good.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Right. Yeah. So if you didn't have correct contact from the bow on the string you wouldn't get a smooth sound.

Andrew Schorr:

And so we don't have the same contact with the air that passes through.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yeah. So if the vocal cords don't touch completely and there's a big gap where air leaks out when you try to talk, then that alters the sound that you hear in people's voice.

Andrew Schorr:

All right. And just so I understand, when somebody sounds hoarse, is that inflammation?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Hoarse is kind of a vague description, but we just take it to mean a difference in the voice quality. So it's hard to pinpoint exactly what's going on from just the descriptor hoarse. I guess a trained voice professional just listening to a voice could maybe ascertain what's going on, but it really has to be diagnosed with a laryngoscopy or a stroboscopy, so actually looking at the vocal cords and their vibration.

Diagnosing Voice Disorders

Andrew Schorr:

So if somebody comes to your clinic and their voice is not right, whether it's for professional reasons or just it's bugging them, what do you do?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

So we always start by doing our perceptual voice evaluations. So when I'm chitchatting with you or asking your history I'm also listening to the voice quality or how you're supporting your voice with breath, where the resonance comes from. So I'm evaluating how the voice sounds the whole time we're talking. And then I also do a head and neck exam, examine your throat structures, lymph nodes, the cartilage structures in your neck. And then we look at the vocal cords and how they vibrate.

Andrew Schorr:

Now you mentioned a scope or something a minute ago. Do you put something in the mouth or the throat to watch the vocal cords?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yes. So we actually put a laryngoscope, so either a flexible laryngoscope that we place through the nose and suspend over the vocal folds, or a rigid laryngoscope that we place through the mouth to look at the vocal fold vibration.

Voice Therapy

Andrew Schorr:

So now you see someone who maybe they have some nodules or maybe they've just been using their voice inefficiently. Does that mean the next step is surgery, or what is the next step?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

We never jump right to surgery. If someone is using their voice inefficiently, and we say, 'Let's go to surgery tomorrow and cut off that polyp,' and they go back to using their voice the same way, then the polyp grows right back. So the first-line treatment for most voice disorders or vocal fold lesions, if they're benign, is voice therapy.

Andrew Schorr:

Voice therapy. So you have that at your clinic, like people, that's what they do?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yes. So we like to say it's like physical therapy for the voice. Our voice clinicians, our speech language pathologists, they sub-specialize in voice.

Andrew Schorr:

So I get it with physical therapy — they're helping me, you know, get better range of motion with my shoulder or back. So what are they doing with my voice? They're trying to help me regain quality with my voice and train me how to keep doing it right?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yeah, it's the same sort of idea as physical therapy because you have muscles in your larynx that are taking part in voice formations, and so the voice therapists work with you in trying to optimize how you're using those muscles.

Where Does Surgery Come In?

Andrew Schorr:

So [say that] we go through voice therapy or physical therapy for my vocal cords, but still there's a problem. So now you're a surgeon too, so what could happen next?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

So if there is a lesion, such as a vocal fold polyp or a cyst, that hasn't responded adequately to therapy, then we talk about surgery. And the surgery is typically an outpatient procedure. We call it a micro-direct laryngoscopy with micro-flap excision of the lesion.

Andrew Schorr:

So something is put down my throat, I imagine, but I'm not asleep. I'm probably —

Dr. Katherine Yung:

You are.

Andrew Schorr:

Oh, you're totally asleep?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yeah. If we are doing an excision then we do it under general anesthesia.

Andrew Schorr:

OK. But still outpatient. I'm going to go home the same day.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Correct.

Andrew Schorr:

And then will I have to rest my voice for a little while?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yes. So the voice rest that is recommended is kind of voodoo. We don't really know the optimal time frame for how long a patient should be on voice rest or whether voice rest is necessary at all, but it just makes sense that patients' vocal folds will be able to heal better if they weren't being constantly used after surgery. So we like to recommend one week of complete voice rest after micro-flap excision with then modified voice rest. So after that first week you don't go back to your normal voice use. We start slowly and under the supervision of our voice therapists.

Andrew Schorr:

Now, if I had another kind of surgery, let's say orthopedic surgery, I would go to the physical therapist then. What about the voice therapist after surgery?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yes. So it's the same idea. The voice therapists are critical in the rehabilitation after voice surgery as well. So after surgery, like I said, they would take the patient off of voice rest and start working with the patient on how to use their voice after surgery.

Andrew Schorr:

So let's say I'm that big anchor person in San Francisco — I wish I were — and I had this problem and you found out maybe I wouldn't using my voice quite right but I developed maybe a nodule and I had the surgery and the voice therapy. If I'm back on track and doing things efficiently, could I just go on and hope that's it, that it's not going to happen again?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

That is the goal, that after successful surgery and therapy after surgery that you as an anchor would know how to use your voice efficiently now and would not have problems in the future.

Andrew Schorr:

That would be neat. Hey, I have to ask you something everybody wonders about. My mom taught me that when my voice was hoarse she would give me tea with lemon and honey to soothe my voice. So does any of that work? Is that proven? Or lozenges or things — where does that come in before we have to go to the clinic?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Patients ask that all the time — 'Is it hot water that helps, cold water, tea with honey?' And there really isn't any scientific evidence behind any of that. We just tell patients, hydration is good and whatever feels the best for you, go with it. So if it's tea with honey, that's fine. If it's warm water, that's fine too. Gargling with saltwater is a good habit as well. The only things I disagree with are when patients insist on excessive drinking of wine or other alcohol after surgery or smoking after surgery.

Andrew Schorr:

And I was going to say smoking is probably not good for your vocal cords.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

No. So any sort of irritant to your vocal folds like smoking, inhaling fumes or any sort of chemical irritant is bad for the vocal fold health.

Preserving the Voice

Andrew Schorr:

So we've got an aging population. So as we get older what strategies would you suggest so that we could have a voice that makes us sound like we're 30 when we're 70? How do we preserve the quality of our voice?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Well, there's not much we can do to counteract aging. Just like the skin on the outside of your body changes with age, so does the skin of your vocal cords. So similar to how you preserve your skin health — keep well hydrated, avoid abusing it. Like you would want to stay out of the sun for your skin, you would avoid smoking and heavy alcohol use, and exercise, you know. So keep doing what you're doing. If you like singing, keep singing and practicing so that your vocal cords don't get out of practice for things that you enjoy doing.

Closing Thoughts

Andrew Schorr:

I think it's good to know that you have your clinic at UCSF, so if someone has a concern they can come and you're going to listen to them, you're going to scope them to see how things vibrate, and between you and your whole team there, you can both give voice therapy and if needed, I'm sure you have very modern surgical techniques so you can get at what needs to be fixed and send us on our way.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Yeah. Laryngology is an exciting field at the moment. There are new technologies and new techniques that are being developed all the time, so it's an exciting area to work in. And I really enjoy being able to help my patients improve their voice and interaction with the world.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, Dr. Katherine Yung, we're going to have you back another time, but we're going to give you an assignment. You're going to have to sing for us so you show us how you're keeping your vocal cords in shape, OK?

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Well, that you may not want. I used to sing in college, but I haven't sung since then, and it's been quite a while.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, you've got to keep that training up.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

You're right.

Andrew Schorr:

Thank you for all you do at the UCSF Voice and Swallowing Center, and thank you for helping us understand what can be done to help us get our voice back in shape. It's very helpful. Thank you for being with us.

Dr. Katherine Yung:

Oh, thank you, Andrew, for having me on Patient Power.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, this is what we do on Patient Power is connect our audience with experts like Dr. Katherine Yung and help us understand something that may be very significant in our lives and how to keep it healthy, and our voice is certainly way up there on the list.

I'm Andrew Schorr. Thanks for joining us. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Recorded May 2012

 

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Otolaryngology

Voice and Swallowing Center
2330 Post St., Fifth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 885–7700
Fax: (415) 885–7800

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