Tell me more about vocal fatigue

Vocal fatigue is an unwelcome component of many teachers' days. To fully explore the topic, a fictional teacher poses a few questions to our voice experts.

Q: You've talked about fatigue in the muscles and vocal fold tissues. But you haven't said anything about other vocal structures: cartilage, ligaments, tendons and joints. How well do they hold up?

A: Although they've been studied less, joints, cartilage, tendons and ligaments of the vocal system seem to be less prone to fatigue as compared to muscles and vocal fold tissues. An exception would be a teacher suffering from arthritis. An important joint of the vocal system - the cricothyroid joint - may stiffen and have less range of motion in a person with arthritis.

Q: You implied that the circulatory system helps vocal muscles recover from fatigue pretty quickly. So, is it reasonable to conclude that we recover from muscular fatigue quicker than tissue fatigue?

A: Yes. Muscles recover within a few minutes, but cell replacement in the vocal folds takes 2-3 days.

Q: Okay, so muscles recover quicker, but are they more prone to fatigue than tissues are? In other words, which type of fatigue should teachers be most worried about?

A: A teacher should probably be most concerned with tissue fatigue. It's usually fairly easy to take a 10-minute break to allow waste products to be swept away and nutrients to be carried into muscle tissues. It's much more difficult for a teacher to comply with 2-3 days of vocal rest!

Q: What should I do if I feel some of the signs of vocal fatigue coming on?

A: Ideally, a teacher will habitually avoid long monologues to prevent undue vocal tissue destruction. If you feel fatigue creeping in and your day of teaching is not yet complete, keep a stash of activities handy for students: ten minutes of quiet independent reading, group or partnered activities, work stations, or student recitations.

Q: Common sense tells me that under-conditioned respiratory muscles used for speaking could be strengthened with aerobic exercise, such as running. True?

A: It is true that "breathing is breathing" and well-conditioned intercostal and abdominal muscles benefit the teacher. However, consider the difference in the way we breathe for exercise and for speaking. In aerobic exercise, we breathe in and breathe out in approximately equal proportions. In speaking, however, we usually take air in fairly quickly, but then release air in a slow, controlled manner.

Q: I know there are different types of muscle fibers: some move rapidly, while others are best for sustaining movement. Would a certain exercise regimen improve the mix of muscle types used for prolonged speaking?

A: There is probably no better exercise for speaking than to speak. At the same time, you know that speaking too much or in an unhealthy manner can be destructive. What a balancing act! At the heart of this contradiction, consider:

  • Know your own body and its limitations
  • Correct unhealthy vocal habits
  • Try to make your vocal environment as friendly as possible

Q: Okay, what else can I do to facilitate recovery from vocal fatigue?

A: Allow yourself be a "vocal coach potato" sometimes. Would you be surprised if a marathon runner insisted on recovery time after a big race? Along these lines of thinking, teachers may need to let their voices rest. Tell your family and friends that you need vocal downtime. Try to find activities geared toward relaxation and rest. We live in a busy and complicated society, but you may need to tell yourself it's okay to take a day to rest.

Q: So, does this mean I should whisper or talk very softly so I don't tire my voice too much?

A: Many experts may tell you that whispering is "bad" for your voice, yet we could find no definitive research to support that claim. Whispering is essentially talking without vibration of the vocal folds, and if the vocal muscles are fatigued, whispering won't allow them to rest. Whispering may also have a dehydrating effect. While there is some disagreement among experts about the wisdom of whispering, it is safe to say that whispering is not the same thing as vocal rest.

Q: We all know it's bad to burst a blister and that calluses form on your hands for a reason. Following that same line of thought, is it good or bad to remove vocal growths?

A: It depends. Vocal nodules may respond well to therapy, and thus, no vocal fold microsurgery would be needed. For stubborn nodules and most polyps, a combination of voice therapy and surgery may be recommended. Of course, these decisions should be made in conjunction with a physician and speech-language pathologist with experience in voice.