A vocal cord dysfunction or spasm is frightening because it makes you feel like you’ll die from not being able to breathe in enough air.
Might this happen again if you’ve experienced it only one time thus far?
The ability to exhale is not impaired in a vocal cord spasm, also known as laryngospasm.
But inhaling is difficult – not because of any dysfunction with the diaphragm – but because the vocal cords themselves are in a state of spasm, which narrows the opening through which inhaled air is supposed to go to reach the lungs.
“The primary purpose of the larynx is to protect the lower airway; it is a sensory organ,” says Inna Husain, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist with Community Healthcare System of Indiana.
“Its primary function is to close to protect this airway.
“Laryngospasm is an exaggerated version of this and can be an isolated event.
“For example, when eating or drinking, if food or liquid gets close to the larynx, it can spasm to protect the lower airways.
“Or if there is a bad case of reflux or a very strong scent, laryngospasm can occur.”
My first episode of what was an obvious laryngospasm was when I was briskly walking down a street at around 2:00 in the morning, on my lunch break from a nightshift job.
It was an industrial area, and all the factories seemed to be shut down for the night.
But the air didn’t smell too great, and soon into my walk, I suddenly found that I “couldn’t breathe.”
When I struggled to inhale, I heard a slight wheezing sound. This was a scary event, not being able to breathe in air without difficulty.
Being fit from aerobic exercise, I instinctively assumed that there were particulates in the air, in this industrial part of downtown, that were interfering with my ability to breathe.
I immediately headed back in the opposite direction, and as I continued walking briskly, the hardship of inhaling began diminishing.
I never again walked in that area. And for years after, I thought that that would be my only episode of vocal cord dysfunction – though at the time, that’s not what I had called it.
Many years later I experienced something similar, but on a smaller scale, after swallowing a supplement.
Again, inhaling caused a slight wheezing sound, and I felt resistance. Frightening as sh*t.
Lesson learned: Take supplements or any pill with more conscious thought; don’t rush through the process.
Same with eating. “Choking” on food can cause a laryngospasm.
The worst case of vocal cord dysfunction that I’d ever experienced, though, occurred at the gym.
I had not been to that particular gym for a long time, and found that it had been recently remodeled.
The strong odor of rubber was in the air, as I walked on a treadmill. When the event occurred, I was actually warming down.
Suddenly, it seemed as though I had inhaled through my mouth a large particle of dust or something, and it made me cough.
While I was coughing (just a few coughs, actually), I had an intuitive feeling that when the coughing was over, I was going to have difficulty breathing.
And sure enough, I struggled significantly to inhale, yet continued walking 2 mph.
The place was too noisy to tell if my labored inhalations were making any noise.
All I knew was that I feared for my life. But I remained calm and chilled, working hard to get in enough air with each breath.
The problem was that every time I exhaled, this meant less air coming in with that next breath, starting it at the end of an exhalation.
So I tried to minimize how much I exhaled.
The first three breaths were the toughest, but once I got to the fourth one, it didn’t feel as hard, and the ones after that got increasingly closer to normal.
The entire experience lasted maybe 35-40 seconds, while I continued walking.
And, by that time in my life, I knew precisely what had just occurred: It could only be a laryngospasm, with the suspect cause being either the strong rubber odor or a particulate in the air.
After all, I’d been using a treadmill for many years, and my body was very trained. I didn’t have exercise-induced asthma, either.
Nevertheless, I brought the situation up to my primary care doctor.
A laryngospasm cannot be diagnosed unless it’s occurring. However, a practitioner can view your vocal cords to see if there’s anything concerning; mine looked normal.
Never again did I have any such experience while using exercise equipment or doing any other kind of exercise.
In summary, a vocal cord dysfunction or laryngospasm, indeed, can happen multiple times over many years. Or, it can happen just once, just by pure chance.
What if I had never went on that 2:00 walk?
What if, by chance, the big supplement went down a little easier?
What if I had not visited that particular gym that day?
Dr. Husain is an otolaryngologist affiliated with Community Hospital, Munster, IN, Community Stroke and Rehabilitation Center, Crown Point, IN, and St. Catherine Hospital, East Chicago, IN. She received her medical degree from Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. Follow her on Instagram and TikTok.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.