To shout or not to shout that is the question (Part 1) Vocal strain /over use

Hi everyone, as a vocal coach, I often receive email inquiries from all kinds of singers and business professionals, wanting to ask me questions about the most common vocal disorders that can affect a singer, or a public speakers vocal health.  

Welcome to the first blog article in a series i will be writting that will help you to understand what are the most common vocal disorders and how to prevent them, and in doing so how to reduce the risk of doing permanent damage to your vocal chords. As usual this is a no BS discussion no punches pulled in delivering you the facts.

Vocal strain or over use is fairly common. If youve ever been to a busy night club, or pub and had to raise your voice and really shout to be heard over the other patrons, or a band. Then you know how easy it is to strain your voice with out even realising it.

In fact in as little as 20- minutes to an hour of excessive over use the voice will begin to exhibit tell tale signs of vocal wear and fatigue. Unfortunately most people tend to ignore these early warning signs and pay the price the next day.

Lets run through three more common scenarios for singers and non singers where excessive missuse of the vocal chords can occur.


Whether your an accomplished singer or just starting off on your rock n roll journey.

Too many singers incorrectly rely on excessive volume or yelling as a tool to reach that next note just out side there natural range.

The problem is quickly compounded when your singing and trying to compete to be heard over your band mates! Singing quickly transforms into yelling and the poor voice suffers as a result.

The popularity and increase of agressive heavy metal vocal styles, is an obvious platform for excessive missuse of the voice. Too many young singers are taking advice from unqualified peers and over night “metal scream gurus” who encourage and promote unsafe methods for screaming.

These singers can do serious irreparable damage to there vocal chords in a very short period of time.

Professional business people:

If your a big sports fan and you go to the game and the referee makes a call you dont agree with then the odds are pretty good that your going to end up shouting and voicing your displeasure at the referee, am I right? Or if the game is a close one you end up shouting yourself hoarse along with the crowd cheering on your home town team to secure a well deserved victory.

But what happens the next morning when you go to use your voice? Depending on how badly you strained your voice you might find that your voice sounds deeper than normal, or for some people they might sound unnaturally husky or hoarse. 

Whats going on inside the voice box when we missuse the voice ?

What are vocal chords?

The vocal cords are two bands of elastic muscle tissue. They are located side by side in the voice box (larynx) just above the windpipe (trachea). Like other muscle tissues in the body, vocal cords can be strained and damaged. Vocal cords can also be subject to infections, tumors and trauma.

Aggressive shouting and yelling at the top of your lungs has a traumatic effect on the vocal chords. Essentially the vocal chords are been violently banged around and blasted with excessive amounts of escaping air. The air comes up from the lungs, and escapes through the wind pipe (trachea). and exits past the vocal chords. In the process the excess air that escapes past the chords acts as a kind of hot air dryer. It drys the chords and removes the protective layer of moisture that the vocal cords rely on to maintain there healthy condition. 

Aggressive yelling and screaming passes more unwanted air over the vocal chords and drys them out very quickly. The result is that your vocal chords have now lost there protective coating that naturally reduces friction as the chords rub together or (technically open and close against each other to form sounds and spoken words).

To gain a better understanding of whats going on in your voice box when you yell or agressively overuse your voice for an extended amount of time.

Try this exercise for twenty seconds: 

Repeatedly clap your hands together for ten seconds, apply enough force untill the palms of your hands begin to tingle. Then firmly rub the palms of your hands together for another ten seconds, or until enough time has passed to create an uncomfortable friction between the two surfaces of your hands.

Okay you can stop now!

Uncomfortable isnt it? do you notice a slight sensation of tingling on your skin?  Essentially that brief violent action is all that was needed to remove the protective oils from the skin on the palm of your hands, once the protective oils are removed if you continue to apply friction against the skin you will end up with an abrasion or worse a weeping blister.

The vocal chords are very similar once you remove the protective layer of moisture from the chords. The vocal chords begin to rub against each other like sand paper. This results in trauma along the edge of the vocal chords  also referred to as your (vocal folds). When the protective layer of moisture is removed from the vocal chords the build up of unwanted friction heats up the vocal chords (much like an over driven stereo speaker thats hot to touch). The chords arent able to cool themselves down or reduce the effects of the heat generated by the excessive friction and they begin to swell up.

The Vocal chords ability to produce a desired pitch requires a symetrical meeting at the edge of the chords to form a momentary bubble or seal. When the chords are swollen they cant close properly to create these momentary (split second seals) and the resulting air that leaks between the chords can sound like a whistle tone or a hoarse airy note.

Its worth noting that the chords actually come together to approximate the beginning of a pitch (they never actually touch) if they touch the chords would be completely closed and no sound would come out). Unstructured Yelling or shouting is very diffrent compared to the way that a singer would safely approach making an agressive gritty sound or vocal scream, a correctly trained singer understands how to safely thin the air that passes between the vocal chords and safely apply correct amounts of compresion against the chords to produce gritty distorted sounds with out damaging the vocal chords. 

If youve been doing a lot of shouting and or incorrectly yell to try and sing high notes.

The first and second signs to look out for to prevent excessive vocal strain is when your voice begins to go dry and you may experience the urge to cough or a tickle in the back of your throat, the third sign is much more obvious, the voice sounds thinner than normal and it can sound like youve sucked on some bad helium. 

For most people its no big deal, they just rest there voice up for a few days and eventually the vocal chords settle down and resume there normal shape and thickness.

But if your a singer or you rely on your voice to earn you a living, sales people, professional speakers etc. Excessive vocal strain can cost you a gig or prevent you from an earning a living.

Depending on the extent of the vocal strain treatment varies.

Ideally swollen and and bruised muscle tissue repair require lots of sleep and rest. 

There is no magic wand cure for excessive vocal trauma.

When rest isnt an option and the show must go on.

Try inhaling steaming in the shower or safely boil a pot of water pour it into a bowl and cover the bowl and your head with a towel. While you and the bowl are underneath the towel slowly inhale the steam deeply in through the nose out through the mouth. Note do not speak for at least an hour after steaming your chords under no circumstances is it recomended or safe for you to  yell or try and sing your high notes! The steam is effectively helping the vocal chords to rehydrate and replace the protective moisture layer, inhaling steam also helps the chords to reduce the swelling and trauma to the muscle tissues. (make sure you dont burn yourself) The boiling point of water is100 degrees Celsius. The better option is to shop around and buy your self a proper steamer from the chemist one that has a built in thermostat to regulate a safe operating temperature for inhalation use.

Drink plenty of water, avoid any and all pharmacy lozaanges that contain alcahol or chemical agents that will dry out the voice.

Try making your self a liquiorice tea, add some natural organic honey.

Avoid any and all forms of smoking until the voice is fully recovered.

The perils of smoking and the damage that it can render to our vocal chords deserves its own blog.

Caffeine is a natural diretic put simply it will make you pee more often and leech the h2o (water) out of your system.

Avoid all spices especially hot spices!

Once the voice has recovered 2-3 hours later after steaming try sucking on little bits of ice. To further reduce the swelling in the chords.

Age also plays a big part in determining how fast your vocal chords will recover from the trauma of excessive miss use. The older you get the longer it takes the vocal chords to recover and heal up  and return to there original healthy state.

That means if your in your early teens and screaming it out on the weekend, by Monday providing you got enough sleep your vocal chords should be on the mend and almost back to normal. Mid twentys the vocal chords may take three or four days to heal up. In your Thirties four or five days to a week. Forties, fiftties etc the same kind of vocal trauma can take an older singer weeks to recover the full use of there voice.


However if the vocal trauma has created little bleeds on the vocal chords, or ruptures or tears in the chord thats a diffrent story all together. Depending on the severity of the damage the vocal chords can end up been scarred for life and require surgery to repair. In all most all cases requiring vocal  surgery most surgeons will agree that there will be some percentage of permanent impairment to the vocal chords operational effiency that will affect tone and vocal range.

Again I say prevention is much better than the the method of remedy! So think twice before you yell at the top of your lungs especially if you rely on your voice to make your living.

Better singing everyone.

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