Vocal cord nodules are growths on a person's vocal cords, or vocal folds, that occur as a result of vocal abuse. Vocal cord nodules aren't life-threatening in any way; in fact, they're completely benign. They can, however, cause a great deal of discomfort as well as damage to one's voice. Nodules typically are treated with voice therapy, or they may be removed with surgery.
Symptoms of vocal cord nodules include a rough, scratchy voice, and a feeling that there's a lump in one’s throat. Nodules are closely related to polyps, which also form on the vocal cords as a result of sustained abuse. Polyps are more like blisters or cold sores, whereas nodules are more like callouses.
Vocal cord nodules form as a result of sustained abuse to the vocal cords. When the vocal cords are irritated, they can become puffy and swollen. Over time, swollen spots can turn into hard, callous-like growths. People who must speak loudly or sing often, such as teachers, speakers, and musicians, run a higher risk than others of developing nodules. With training, people can adapt their speaking and singing styles in such a way as to reduce the odds of damaging the vocal cords.
While it's often the case that nodules form as a result of a certain style of speaking or singing, they can also be caused by other factors, such as heartburn and smoking addiction. Other possible factors include thyroid issues, allergies, and stress. The diversity of possible causes is one reason why it's especially important to see a medical expert as soon as nodule symptoms arise.
Vocal cord nodules, though not dangerous, can be incredibly discomforting. They can be physically painful, causing a scratchy throat that might feel as though it has a lump in it. People might also feel neck pain, and even develop shooting pains that pass from ear to ear.
Perhaps more annoying than the pain is the impairment to one’s speaking and singing voice. Vocal cord nodules can cause individuals to have hoarse and raspy-sounding voices. For singers, the development of a rough voice can be devastating. The British actress/singer Julie Andrews famously lost her singing voice after a botched surgery to remove vocal cord nodules.
Surgery is usually one of the last resorts for treating vocal cord nodules and polyps; typically, surgery only is performed if nodules are exceptionally persistent and large. In many cases, nodules can be alleviated with speech therapy. They can also be prevented with speech training, which teaches individuals how to speak and sing properly to avoid injury to the vocal cords. Others may need to cut out lung-damaging habits, such as smoking.