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Laryngeal Nerve Damage

  • Larynx and laryngeal nerve

Definition

The laryngeal nerves attach to the larynx (the voice box). Laryngeal nerve damage can be caused by a variety of medical conditions.

What is going on in the body?

There are two laryngeal nerves-one on the right and one on the left. These nerves help move the vocal cords, allowing a person to talk. They also help prevent food from going into the windpipe, or trachea. Damage to these nerves usually produces symptoms.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

Causes of laryngeal nerve damage include:
  • injury, which may occur unintentionally during surgery or other medical procedures
  • strokes
  • tumors, or growths, that can invade the nerve
  • infection, resulting in inflammation or destruction of the nerve
  • enlarged arteries, which may press on the nerve
  • diseases of the nervous system

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Usually, nothing can be done to prevent laryngeal nerve damage.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

A person's symptoms and the findings of a physical exam make the healthcare professional suspect laryngeal nerve damage. The diagnosis can sometimes be confirmed with swallowing studies, or with a procedure known as endoscopy.
Endoscopy involves inserting a thin tube through the mouth and into the vocal cords. The tube has a camera on the end of it that allows the doctor to view the vocal cords and check their function. This procedure, as well as other tests such as x-rays, may also help uncover the cause of the nerve damage.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Damage to the laryngeal nerves is often permanent. This may cause lifelong voice or breathing problems.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Laryngeal nerve damage is not contagious, and poses no risk to others.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Treatment varies depending on the cause and extent of the laryngeal nerve damage, but may include:
  • surgery to help prevent lung infections or relieve breathing problems
  • short-term use of a ventilator, an artificial breathing machine
  • a tracheostomy, which is a surgical opening into the windpipe to allow breathing
  • antibiotics, if a lung infection occurs
  • surgery or medication to treat the underlying cause of the nerve damage. For example, a tumor may need to be surgically removed.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Medications can cause side effects such as allergic reactions and stomach upset. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or reactions to the anesthesia.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Laryngeal nerve damage is often permanent. A person may be able to return to his or her normal activities after treatment. In some cases, the individual will need voice retraining with a speech therapist. Treatment may have to continue for the rest of a person's life depending upon the underlying cause of the nerve damage.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

Sources

Sabiston Textbook of Surgery, 1997, Sabiston et al.

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