Speaking? Tight throat?
August 27, 2014 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I have a job that requires a lot of taking and making calls throughout the day. I'm not a massively sociable and chatty person, but I've been doing it for a year now and I've become good at it. The only problem is that sometimes my throat feels like it constricts and my voice becomes choked and difficult to speak with/hear.

It's difficult to find correlations but it seems to be mostly in afternoons; sometimes I'll come in in the morning with relaxed vocal cords sounding like a confident, deep, masterful sonofabitch, and I think often it's midafternoon when it'll transform into a strangulated high raspy contralto with intermittent dropouts that make it difficult for people to understand me. I talk to a lot of international people and a lot of strangers, but the effect lasts for a period of time even when I speak to familiar co-workers and lasts until the end of the day. (I'm male, btw.)

I can hear it in my voice and it makes me lose self-confidence and become abrupt and incompetent on the phone. What are the possible causes, and what can I do about it?

It doesn't seem to be related to how heavy a lunch I've had. I've tried drinking lukewarm water instead of the cold water that comes out of the water machine. I smoke a few days a week and used to smoke a lot more; I drink most days a week; it doesn't always seem to be related to my confidence or my state of mind, and kicks in with apparent randomness.

I'm not the world's greatest verbal communicator but this phenomenon turns me into the worst - help, please, any ideas?
posted by forgetful snow to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
We have similar problems. Mine is more related to how tight, tired and occasionally sore my throat feels after lots of talking, but maybe these can give you ideas:

I stopped smoking recently (119 days ago, to be exact!) and that has helped tremendously. Especially in the last couple of weeks.

I keep ice water around most of the post-lunch part of the day (in a thermos--no ice available at the office). I make a point of gargling it a bit at least a few times per day before swallowing a mouthful.

When I get sore, I've occasionally opted for an external cold pack in the evenings, laid across my throat while I lie back on the couch for 10 or so. It seems to help with recovery time.

My doctor suggested keeping things on hand that encourage salivating/swallowing in case part of the problem is related to tissues drying out and getting irritated while talking. It sounded silly, but I suppose it's been helpful. I've landed on little bits of candied ginger that I can chew on for a good long while of just keep parked in my mouth somewhere inconspicuous while I'm talking (a college professor of mine couldn't give a lecture without a mint or something always in his mouth--for dry mouth, I think--and he was really good at concealing it. I try to keep that in mind, because sometimes I honestly can't resist popping a ginger in my mouth when I'm on the phone, am already throat-tired, but have more talking to do.

Do you live where the humidity is low? When we lived in Los Angeles, I kept a humidifier going on its lowest setting during working hours. It may not have helped my throat, per se, but it helped my sinuses/nasal passages, which kept me from discomfort-snorting so much, which kept me from coughing so much, which kept me from freaking out my throat.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:40 PM on August 27, 2014

I like to sip on lemon tea with honey, or a slice of fresh lemon in hot water with a glob of honey in it. I heard it was an opera singer trick.
posted by mochapickle at 2:36 PM on August 27, 2014

my guess, as a singer but NOT as an ENT, is that you're tightening up your throat and high shoulder muscles when you talk, and over time that's leading to fatigue. Make sure when you talk that your shoulders aren't hunched and you aren't pushing your chin forward. When you feel your voice tighten up, try consciously pushing your shoulders back and hanging your head back for a couple seconds and see if that doesn't give you some relief.
posted by KathrynT at 2:41 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're not doing it already, breathe with your belly expanding as you inhale, instead if your shoulders rising.

And then start practicing to control the volume of your voice using your belly, instead if your throat/chest muscles.

You will get more mileage out of your diaphragm, than those muscles in your head and neck.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 2:41 PM on August 27, 2014

Best answer: I really hate armchair diagnoses/disease hysteria on AskMe, and this is anecdata rather than a diagnosis. This happens to me too -- my voice gets froggier as the day goes on. I recently learned that I mine is caused by "silent reflux," also characterized by what feels like a constant lump in my throat.

I was dubious about that being the cause since I've never had any symptoms of GERD, but I've just started taking Zantac and it seems to be improving a little bit, so.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:03 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Most likely this is simply from overuse. Your vocal cords are really just thin little membranes that are attached to some very fine muscles in your larynx. Just like any muscle in the body, they get sore/tired/inflamed when used too much. Simply, humans are not really made to be speaking all day long. The muscles/membranes/organs of speech are just not all that durable.

Certainly smoking and drinking will irritate your vocal folds and throat generally, exacerbating your problem tremendously. If you are going to keep using your voice extensively, you basically have to follow a singer's regime - no smoking, careful with foods that give you GERD symptoms, you must support your voice and speak in your natural pitch range (no stretching for a lower pitch to sound more masculine, no vocal fry), drink plenty of liquids (most singers will recommend some sort of a tea perhaps with lemon and honey. Actual science is sort of unclear on this, and everyone seems to have some little thing they swear by, but hot-ish tea seems to be pretty universal). At night, rest your voice as much as you can - no talking very loudly at bars.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:59 PM on August 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hate to suggest this and I am not a doctor, but it kind of sounds like spasmodic dysphonia. Maybe go see a doctor?
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:45 PM on August 27, 2014

Jumping in to second mudpuppie. I have silent reflux and I experience a tightening that is very similar to what you describe. Maybe try an OTC acid controller an hour before lunch and see if that helps you? For me, certain foods most certainly aggravate this - eggs, red sauce, fatty foods, and anything acidic like coffee or orange juice. I'd suggest you definitely see a doctor, but perhaps the foods you eat are playing a part? With silent reflux, there's no heartburn, so there's no way to know you have it without an ENT peering down your throat. Good luck!
posted by onecircleaday at 10:00 PM on August 27, 2014

Oh, and forgot to say - mine has nothing to do with how heavy the lunch/dinner is - it's the content of the meal that's the problem.
posted by onecircleaday at 10:02 PM on August 27, 2014

I think experiencing this symptom is what prompted the Alexander technique guy to invent it.
posted by Acheman at 3:01 AM on August 28, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for the advice everyone! I really appreciate it and I'll work on my vocal posture, lifestyle and diet.

In the last couple of months I have felt a faint persistent lump in my throat, but I've been brushing it off as a phantom (hence not thinking of it when I wrote the post) - a visit to the doctor to check for laryngopharyngeal reflux or spasmodic dysphoria is now on the books. Cheers all.
posted by forgetful snow at 3:25 AM on August 28, 2014

Don't worry too much about spasmodic dysphonia, your problem sounds much more like an over-use or muscle tension dysphonia, possibly with elements of silent reflux.

The biggest thing you could do to improve your vocal health is stop smoking.

Then there are a whole host of techniques that can help your speaking voice, but you'd need to talk to a speech and language therapist specialising in voice for that. They will only talk to you after an ENT doctor has said it's appropriate.
posted by kadia_a at 2:53 PM on August 28, 2014

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