February 12, 2012

Adele Speaks About her Vocal Cord Surgery on 60 Minutes

When it was first reported that Adele was undergoing vocal cord surgery in October 2011, there was much speculation regarding what exact vocal cord pathology she suffered from (hemorrhage? polyp?) and what type of vocal cord surgery she underwent for correction (laser? cutting?).

During her 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper which aired on February 12, 2012, many details regarding her vocal cord problems have clarified.

She apparently suffered from a vocal cord polyp with hemorrhage.

Typically, this problem is normally treated with strict voice rest followed by extensive voice therapy prior to surgical consideration. However, this (safe) course of action takes time and as such, she pursued a much more aggressive approach in order to recover her voice as quickly as possible.

To explain, a lesson in some basic anatomy first...

Normally, the vocal cords are pearly white without any vasculature. Watch a video of how this exam is performed.

However, when a blood vessel is present in the vocal cords, they may look something like this:

When there is a hemorrhagic polyp with a blood vessel as in Adele's case, her vocal cords may have looked like this where the blue arrowhead is pointing to a hemorrhagic polyp. The green arrow is pointing towards a feeding blood vessel.

The issue with a blood vessel within the vocal cord itself is that it fluctuates in size due to whether it is irritated from phono-trauma or even hormones. When a polyp is present, the vocal changes are even more dramatic. Such fluctuation in size causes the voice to change in pitch and quality on an hour to hour basis depending on how much swelling occurs. For a singer, it makes the voice very unpredictable.

When the blood vessel becomes engorged and traumatized, it may even rupture leading to a vocal cord hemorrhage. Especially in a woman, the blood vessel may be more prone to hemorrhage during her menstrual cycle.

This is a dangerous situation for a singer because of their regular voice use and need to use it forcefully. However with too much force, the blood vessel may suddenly rupture (even in the middle of a performance) resulting in a hemorrhage into the vocal lining itself causing a sudden and complete loss of voice. There may even be mild pain associated with this occurrence.

In Adele's case, she remembers the very moment this occurred during a radio interview when she "felt a pop" and her vocal pitch suddenly dropped into the bass range.

This makes perfect sense... To use the analogy of a violin string, the thicker the violin string the deeper the pitch. When hemorrhage occurs, the vocal cord becomes thicker due to blood pooling resulting in a deeper voice instantly.

To the right is a picture of a vocal cord hemorrhage. Note the entire vocal cord on one side (which is the patient's right side for those in the know) is brilliant red indicative of the presence of blood throughout the cord.

How is this treated?

Initially, during an acute vocal cord hemorrhage, STRICT VOICE REST is mandatory. With continued voice use, the patient risks abnormal healing that may result in the development or exacerbation of a vocal cord polyp. With repetitive cycles of healing and trauma, vocal cord scarring may even develop. Along with strict voice rest, steroids are often prescribed to help reduce the inflammatory swelling that often occurs as well as minimize risk of scarring.

Unfortunately, though such treatment may resolve the hemorrhage, it will typically not get rid of the culprit blood vessel and associated polyp.

For that, surgical intervention is required.

One option is to precisely cut out the polyp and cauterize the feeding blood vessel at the same time. This approach was the course that Adele pursued. Watch a video on this approach (video shows a generic vocal cord mass removal, but the approach is identical).

The other option is use of a laser first to extinguish blood vessels present which may also significantly resolve the polyp followed by excision of the residual polyp at a later date. This latter approach is typically what I recommend. Why? It is relatively non-invasive and I feel the risk of scarring to be less compared with excision and vessel obliteration with a laser at the same time (though not zero). Furthermore, a smaller polyp also means a smaller wound that needs to heal.

Shown at end of this blog article is a video of a vascular polyp being obliterated using a pulsed-dye laser (courtesy of Dr. Chandra Marie-Ivey). Another type of laser that may be used is a KTP laser. Read more about laser treatment of vocal cord pathology here.

Regardless of how or in what order the surgery is performed, strict voice rest is mandatory for a period of time post-operatively. For Adele, that was strict voice rest for nearly two months (Nov and Dec 2011). Why? Because with talking or any other vocal activity, the vocal cords come together. After surgical removal of a polyp, there is a raw surface present which won't heal as well if the other vocal cord is banging against it. Talking after vocal cord surgery is analogous to jogging right after foot surgery.

The vocal cord surgical wound MUST heal prior to talking let alone singing for normal recovery. That means strict voice rest. Strict voice rest means no talking, no singing, no whispering, no mouthing words, no throat-clearing, no humming, etc.

Read more about vocal cord polyps here.

Read the 60 Minutes interview here.

Of note, she later went on to sing a stellar performance at the Grammy Awards debuting her new voice for the first time after her surgery.

Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was happy when the e.n.t. said I could sing again someday. I had finally quit smoking just two weeks earlier and for the first time in nearly 8 years finally heard my singing voice. It sounded like hell but it still existed. I realize after some crazy research tonight that I will be lucky if this is not cancerous. That my whole life is going to go upside down before I'm going to be able to really belt out a good long concert. I was prepared and ready quit smoking cigarettes. Let's just say I live in Colorado... I am constantly speaking. And am about to (finally) start a new job with a great company (as a cashier!) I have read many articles apparently candy coated to the gills. I was So happy the Dr said she could fix me I never asked how she was going to do it. Damn dude... I'm really scared now.

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