April 29, 2013

Pop Singer Nathan Sykes Undergoes Vocal Cord Surgery

Nathan Sykes, singer for the boy band The Wanted, underwent vocal cord surgery on April 18, 2013 for a "hemorrhaged nodule" according to media reports.

Rather than a nodule, I am suspecting he actually suffered from a hemorrhagic polyp which makes more medical sense. And along with surgery... he is now on voice rest for an indefinite period of time.

This condition is the same reason Adele underwent vocal cord surgery in 2011 which mandated a several month period of voice rest leading to cancelled concerts.

Typically, a hemorrhagic polyp is 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, much more aggressive approaches can be pursued in order to recover the voice as quickly as possible.

For professional singers like Nathan Sykes and Adele, the desire to have a restored voice as soon as possible is understandable. However, there are always downsides.

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 Nathan's case (presumably), the 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 phono-trauma or even hormones especially in females. 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.

It is unknown what exactly happened in Nathan Syke's case.

But, 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 and probably what happened with Nathan Sykes as well. 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.

The Wanted's Nathan Sykes Taking 'Unforeseen Hiatus'. MTV News 4/17/13

The Wanted say they 'fear' for Nathan Sykes' voice. BBC News 4/29/13

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.

Banner Map

Pediatric Neck Masses

Adult Neck Mass Workup