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Physical Examination of Voice

Physical Examination of Voice

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Physical Examination of Voice

Robert T. Satalo\ufb00, MD, DMA*,
Mary J. Hawkshaw, BSN, RN, CORLN,
Venu Divi, MD,
Yolanda D. Heman-Ackah, MD

Department of Otolaryngology\u2013Head and Neck Surgery, Drexel University College
of Medicine, 1721 Pine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-6771, USA
Physical examination

A detailed history frequently reveals the cause of a voice problem even before a physical examination is performed. A comprehensive physical ex- amination, often including objective assessment of voice function, also is es- sential, however[1\u20133]. Physical examination must include a thorough ear, nose, and throat evaluation and assessment of the patient\u2019s general physical condition. A patient who is extremely obese or seems fatigued, agitated, emotionally stressed, or otherwise generally ill has increased potential for voice dysfunction. This dysfunction could be attributable to any number of factors: altered abdominal support, loss of \ufb01ne motor control of laryngeal muscles, decreased bulk of the submucosal vocal fold ground substance, change in the character of mucosal secretions, or other similar mechanisms. Any physical condition that impairs the normal function of the abdominal musculature is suspect as cause for dysphonia. Some conditions, such as pregnancy, are obvious; however, a sprained ankle or broken leg that re- quires the singer to balance in an unaccustomed posture may distract him or her from maintaining good abdominal support and thereby result in voice dysfunction. A tremorous neurologic disorder, endocrine disturbances such as thyroid dysfunction or menopause, the aging process, and other systemic

This article is modified from: Sataloff RT. Professional voice: the science and art of clinical care. 3rd edition. San Diego (CA): Plural Publishing, Inc.; 2006. p. 343\u201353; with per- mission.

* Corresponding author.
E-mail address:rtsataloff@phillyent.com(R.T. Sataloff).
0030-6665/07/$ - see front matter\u00d3 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Otolaryngol Clin N Am
40 (2007) 953\u2013969

conditions also may alter the voice. The physician must remember that mal- adies of almost any body system may result in voice dysfunction, and the doctor must remain alert for conditions outside of the head and neck. If the patient uses his or her voice professionally for singing, acting, or other vocally demanding professions, physical examination should also include as- sessment of the patient during typical professional vocal tasks. For example, a singer should be asked to sing. Evaluation techniques for assessing the per- formance mechanism are described in greater detail elsewhere[4\u201310].

Complete ear, nose, and throat examination

Examination of the ears must include assessment of hearing acuity. Even a slight hearing loss may result in voice strain as a singer tries to balance his or her vocal intensity with that of associate performers. Similar e\ufb00ects are encountered among speakers, but they are less prominent in the early stages of hearing loss. This observation is especially true of hearing losses acquired after vocal training has been completed. The e\ufb00ect is most pronounced with sensorineural hearing loss. Diplacusis, distortion of pitch perception, makes vocal strain even worse. With conductive hearing loss, singers tend to sing more softly than appropriate rather than too loudly, and this is less harmful.

During an ear, nose, and throat examination, the conjunctivae and sclerae should be observed routinely for erythema that suggests allergy or irritation, for pallor that suggests anemia, and for other abnormalities, such as jaundice. These observations may reveal the problem re\ufb02ected in the vocal tract even before the larynx is visualized. Hearing loss in a spouse or family member may be problematic also if the voice professional strains vocally to communicate.

The nose should be assessed for patency of the nasal airway, character of the nasal mucosa, and nature of secretions, if any. A patient who is unable to breathe through the nose because of anatomic obstruction is forced to breathe un\ufb01ltered, unhumidi\ufb01ed air through the mouth. Pale gray allergic mucosa or swollen infected mucosa in the nose suggests abnormal mucosa elsewhere in the respiratory tract.

Examination of the oral cavity should include careful attention to the tonsils and lymphoid tissue in the posterior pharyngeal wall and to the mu- cosa. Di\ufb00use lymphoid hypertrophy associated with a complaint of scratchy voice and irritative cough may indicate infection. The amount and viscosity of mucosal and salivary secretions also should be noted. Xerostomia is par- ticularly important. The presence of scalloping of the lateral aspects of the tongue should be noted. This \ufb01nding is caused commonly by tongue thrust and may be associated with inappropriate tongue tension and muscle ten- sion dysphonia. Dental examination should focus not only on oral hygiene but also on the presence of wear facets suggestive of bruxism. Bruxism is a clue to excessive tension and may be associated with dysfunction of the temporomandibular joints, which should also be assessed routinely.


Thinning of the enamel of the central incisors in a normal or underweight patient may be a clue to bulimia. It may also result from excessive ingestion of lemons, which some singers eat to help thin their secretions.

The neck should be examined for masses, restriction of movement, excess muscle tension or spasm, and scars from prior neck surgery or trauma. La- ryngeal vertical mobility is also important. For example, tilting of the larynx produced by partial \ufb01xation of cervical muscles cut during previous surgery may produce voice dysfunction, as may \ufb01xation of the trachea to overlying neck skin. Particular attention should be paid to the thyroid gland. Enlarge- ment of the gland may signal subclinical hypothyroidism or thyroiditis, both of which can a\ufb00ect the vocal folds, their vibratory function, and the integrity of the laryngeal nerves, in some cases contributing to paresis and paralysis of the superior or recurrent laryngeal nerves. Examination of posterior neck muscles and range of motion should not be neglected. Neck muscle spasm, decreased range of motion, and cervical spine abnormalities can contribute to increased neck tension and hyperfunctional voice behaviors. The cranial nerves should also be examined. Diminished \ufb01fth nerve sensation, dimin- ished gag re\ufb02ex, palatal deviation, or other mild cranial nerve de\ufb01cits may indicate cranial polyneuropathy. Postviral, infectious neuropathies may in- volve the superior laryngeal nerve and cause weakness of the vocal fold mus- cle secondary to decreased neural input, fatigability, and loss of range and projection in the voice. The recurrent laryngeal nerve is also a\ufb00ected in some cases. More serious neurologic disease may also be associated with such symptoms and signs.

Laryngeal examination

Examination of the larynx begins when the singer or other voice patient enters the physician\u2019s o\ufb03ce. The range, ease, volume, and quality of the speaking voice should be noted. If the examination is not being conducted in the patient\u2019s native language, the physician should be sure to listen to a sample of the patient\u2019s mother tongue also. Voice use is often di\ufb00erent un- der the strain or habits of foreign language use. Rating scales used to de- scribe the quality of the speaking voice may be helpful[11,12]. The classi\ufb01cation proposed by the Japanese Society of Logopedics and Phoniat- rics is one of the most widely used. It is known commonly as the GRBAS Voice Rating Scale[13].

Physicians are not usually experts in voice classi\ufb01cation. Physicians should at least be able to discriminate substantial di\ufb00erences in range and timbre, however, such as between bass and tenor, or alto and soprano. Although the correlation between speaking and singing voices is not perfect, a speaker who has a low, comfortable bass voice who reports that he is a tenor may be misclassi\ufb01ed and singing inappropriate roles with consequent voice strain. This judgment should be deferred to an expert, but the observation should lead the physician to make the appropriate referral. Excessive volume or


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