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Laryngeal nerve damage

Laryngeal nerve damage is injury to one or both of the nerves that are attached to the voice box.

Alternative Names

Vocal cord paralysis

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Injury to the laryngeal nerves is uncommon.

It it does occur, it can be from:

  • A complication of neck or chest surgery (especially thyroid, lung, heart surgery, or cervical spine surgery)
  • A breathing tube in the windpipe (endotracheal tube)
  • A viral infection that affects the nerves
  • Tumors in the neck or upper chest, such as thyroid or lung cancer

Symptoms

  • Difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness

Injury to the left and right laryngeal nerves at the same time can be an urgent situation that can lead to difficulty breathing.

Signs and tests

The doctor will check if your vocal cords move abnormally. Abnormal movement may mean that a laryngeal nerve is injured.

Tests may include:

Treatment

Treatment depends on the cause of the injury. In some instances, no treatment may be needed and the nerve may recover on its own. Voice therapy is useful in some cases.

If surgery is needed, the goal is to change the position of the paralyzed vocal cord to improve the voice. This can be done with:

  • Arytenoid adduction (stitches to move the vocal cord toward the middle of the airway)
  • Injections of collagen, Gelfoam, or another substance
  • Thyroplasty

If both the left and right nerves are damaged, a hole may need to be cut into the windpipe (tracheotomy) right away to allow breathing. This is followed by another surgery at a later date.

Expectations (prognosis)

The outlook depends on the cause of the injury. In some cases, the nerve rapidly returns to normal. However, sometimes the damage is permanent.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing (call right away)
  • Unexplained hoarseness that lasts for more than 3 weeks

References

Lai SY, Mandel SJ, Weber RS. Management of thyroid neoplasms. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al., eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2010:chap 124.

Updated: 11/9/2012

Seth Schwartz, MD, MPH, Otolaryngologist, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.


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