Gastroesophageal reflux, otherwise known as GERD, is a frequently misunderstood illness. Symptoms can include hoarseness, chronic throat clearing, cough, throat soreness and pain, and swallowing problems. Some have reflux without obvious symptoms like heartburn, while others report the feeling of a “lump in the throat”, known as a globus sensation. In any scenario GERD can be a significant contributing factor in voice disorders.

That’s where the talented NCH Speech Language Pathologists can help. They can help manage how GERD affects the vocal cords and improve patients’ vocal quality. An exam with a physician specialized in Otolaryngology, (ENT), can help diagnose GERD. The exam is not painful and the physician can determine if vocal hoarseness is a result of acid.

“The airway is very sensitive to acid and the vocal cords swell up and start to make phlegm to protect the lungs from acid,” says Susan O’Neill, MS, CCC-SLP and Program Leader for Speech Pathology Services at NCH Healthcare System.

To help manage the voice, people are then referred for voice evaluations. “Oftentimes, we receive referrals for voice therapy with a diagnosis of GERD/Hoarseness,” says Carrie Anderson, MS, CCC-SLP.

Both pathologists have powerful tools that aid in their treatment. The KayPENTAX® is state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment available at NCH, which provides a view of the larynx during a detailed exam of the vocal cords under a strobe light to analyze vocal cord movement.

“We look down the throat with a camera and the strobe light slows the motion of the vocal cords during voiced activities, which allow us to make a detailed diagnosis, says O’Neill.

Patients can benefit from treatment plans that include lifestyle changes and changes in breathing techniques, all designed to keep the vocal cords healthy and working well.

“In the case of one of our patients, GERD was disrupting her lifestyle and work so much that she made immediate changes that included avoiding certain foods like caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, tomato-based foods, as well as mint or menthol,” says Anderson.

She also made changes to her breathing pattern. “The body goes into protective mode, and we are often not using our diaphragms correctly,” says Anderson.

Treatment plans can include teaching breathing techniques, focusing on bringing the voice forward and using more appropriate pitch levels. To learn more about how you can get help, consult with your physician to see if speech therapy is appropriate for you.

For more information, contact Susan O’Neill, MS, CCC-SLP, at 239-552-7567 or visit us on the web at