What are Vocal Cords?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Vocal cords or vocal folds are structures in the larynx which are designed to vibrate when air passes by, producing sound. These structures allow people to speak, and they also help to protect the lungs from accidental inhalation of food, saliva, and mucus. Animals also have vocal folds, which allows them to vocalize. A number of disorders can involve the vocal cords, and as a general rule, such conditions need to be treated promptly because they can become life threatening.

Excessive voice strain may lead to vocal cord damage.
Excessive voice strain may lead to vocal cord damage.

The true vocal cords are found just above the trachea and below the epiglottis. They consist of two bands of tissue which stretch horizontally across the larynx. Contracting or relaxing the cords allows their owner to permit the free flow of air through the throat, or to restrict it. By making tightly controlled contractions, someone can speak and produce other sounds. The pitch of the sound is determined by a number of factors, including the size and tension of the vocal cords. Men tend to produce lower pitches, while children produce sounds at a higher pitch.

Vocal folds are found in the larynx.
Vocal folds are found in the larynx.

Just above the true vocal cords, two similar structures known as the vestibular or false folds can be found. The false folds do not generally contribute to the production of sound, although people can train themselves to use them, as is done in several traditional singing techniques. Together, the two sets of folds in throat can be contracted to open up the throat, or relaxed to fill it. The vestibular folds are slightly thicker and larger than the true vocal folds.

Chronic smoking can damage vocal cords.
Chronic smoking can damage vocal cords.

Because these cords must be highly flexible and strong, they are very elastic, and they are covered in a layer of mucus membranes. When the vocal folds are visible during surgery, endoscopy, and similar procedures, they appear almost white in color, because they have a limited blood supply.

The vocal cords lie above the trachea and below the epiglottis.
The vocal cords lie above the trachea and below the epiglottis.

A number of things can cause damage to the vocal cords, including infections, voice strain, polyps, nodules, irritation, and swelling. Some people can even develop paralysis, in which the vocal cords cannot be moved, which can affect the ability to speak or breathe. These conditions can cause permanent damage if they are allowed to persist, and they can potentially be very dangerous, making it important to see a doctor for issues related to these structures. Physical or speech therapy, surgery, and medication are all approaches to vocal cord disorders.

Someone who has to do a lot of speaking as part of their job should be careful not to strain their vocal cords.
Someone who has to do a lot of speaking as part of their job should be careful not to strain their vocal cords.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Chai18

I used to sing in my church's choir and my high school chorus group. I practiced daily and had to perform at least once each week, sometimes more.

To avoid straining or overusing my vocal cords, I would try to set time aside every night to let my vocal cords rest by not talking or singing for an hour before I went to bed. Sometimes my throat would start to get sore and my voice would sound scratchy. Drinking warm tea, especially with honey, really helped to soothe my throat and restore my voice.

Lindsay21

It seems like a lot of popular female singers have to take a break from touring due to strained vocal cords. After she won American Idol, Jordin Sparks had a vocal hemorrage and had to leave her tour with Alicia Keys.

I remember Ashlee Simpson also strained her vocal cords and had to learn new singing techniques. It was interesting to watch her go through this recovery process on her MTV show. (Yes, I admit that I watched that show every week, haha.)

I guess you really have to be careful with your vocal cords.

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