Before going any further, the title to a Los Angeles Times story was “Adele to have surgery to treat vocal cord hemorrhage. What is it?”
I sincerely hope that whomever her surgeon is knows not to perform surgery when the vocal cord is in the middle of a hemorrhage. You do the surgery when the hemorrhage is gone and the culprit blood vessel is left behind which likely is the reason for the hemorrhage happening in the first place.
What do I mean?
Normally, the vocal cords are pearly white without any vasculature. However, when a blood vessel is present in the vocal cords, they may look something like this:
The issue with a blood vessel within the vocal cord itself is that it fluctuates in size due to whether it is irritated from phono-trauma or even hormones. Such fluctuation in size causes the voice to change in pitch and quality on an hour to hour basis depending on how much swelling occurs. For a singer, it makes the voice unpredictable.
When the blood vessel becomes engorged and traumatized, it may even rupture leading to a vocal cord hemorrhage. Especially in a woman, the blood vessel may be more prone to hemorrhage during her menstrual cycle.
This is a dangerous situation for a singer because of their regular voice use and need to use it forcefully. However with too much force, the blood vessel may suddenly rupture (even in the middle of a performance) resulting in a hemorrhage into the vocal lining itself causing a sudden and complete loss of voice. There may even be mild pain associated with this occurrence.
To the right is a picture of a vocal cord hemorrhage. Note the entire vocal cord on one side (which is the patient’s right side for those in the know) is brilliant red indicative of the presence of blood throughout the cord.
How is this treated?
Initially during an acute vocal cord hemorrhage, strict voice rest is mandatory. With continued voice use, the patient risks abnormal healing that may result in a vocal cord polyp or vocal cord scarring. Along with strict voice rest, steroids are often prescribed to help reduce the inflammatory swelling that often occurs as well as minimize risk of scarring.
Unfortunately, though such treatment may resolve the hemorrhage, it will typically not get rid of the culprit blood vessel.
For that, surgical intervention is required.
Such surgical intervention is much like trying to get rid of varicose veins in the leg.
One option is to precisely cut it out. Watch a video on this approach (video shows a vocal cord mass removal, but just pretend the mass is a blood vessel as the approach is identical).
The other option is use of a laser which is typically what I recommend. Why? It is relatively non-invasive and I feel the risk of scarring to be less compared with excision (though not zero).
Christopher Chang is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Fauquier ENT Consultants blog.
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