The end of the year is a time of much social interaction. Social gatherings tend to involve a lot of talking and sometimes even group singing. As more people join festivities, rooms fill with louder and louder background noise from the growing number of voices. This phenomenon is called the Lombard effect. The Lombard effect is the involuntary tendency of people to increase their vocal effort when speaking in loud environments to improve the audibility of their voice (Lane & Tranel, 1971). Modifications in voice and speech include not only loudness but also pitch, rate, and syllable duration.
While changing the acoustics of oral communication increases intelligibility, it also can increase biomechanical forces with voice production such as impact stress. Impact stress is the biomechanical energy exchanged between the vocal fold tissues as they collide during vibration. Factors that increase impact stress include a pressed voice, a louder voice, and a higher voice. In dealing with background noise, speakers will experience higher doses of impact stress as they increase their vocal effort, vocal loudness, and vocal pitch. Such vocal modifications place speakers at greater risk for phonotrauma, that is, the negative vocal fold tissue changes that arise with certain types of voice use.
Everyone who communicates vocally experiences a minimal amount of phonotrauma each day. However, not everyone recovers from micro-injury associated with voice use. Some speakers accumulate enough biomechanical energy exchange during vocal fold vibration that negative tissue changes become chronic and can interfere with voicing. The ability of vocal fold tissue to tolerate impact stress and other biomechanical forces during voice production is partly dependent on the condition of the vocal folds. Suboptimal vocal fold health due to dehydration and non-vocal sources of irritation decreases the tissue’s tolerance and resilience to vocal sources of irritation. Desiccated and irritated vocal folds do not recover as well from repeated trauma that occurs with large vibrational doses as we gather socially.
So, what can be done? Follow these prevention measures to maintain a healthy voice as you socialize this winter season.
- First, maintain hydrated vocal folds. Drink fluids and nebulize.
- Second, keep the lungs healthy. Stay in good physical health.
- Third, enjoy silent activities. Watch a movie or stream a series.
- Fourth, limit any phonotrauma. Find quieter places to talk.
- Fifth, vocalize efficiently. Coordinate exhalation, vibration, and articulation.
- Importantly, aid vocal recovery. Perform straw phonation.
These evidence-based steps can help keep ahealthyvoice functioning well and prevent chronic vocal fold tissue injury. If your voice does deteriorate and the changes last for more than four weeks, consult a clinician specializing in voice care. For accurate diagnosis, have your vocal folds imaged using laryngoscopy with stroboscopy to observe their vibration. Early diagnosis and treatment is critical toa full and speedy vocal recovery.
Lane H, Tranel B (1971). “The Lombard sign and the role of hearing in speech”. J Speech Hear Res. 14 (4): 677–709. doi:10.1044/jshr.1404.677.
Summers WV, Pisoni DB, Bernacki RH, Pedlow RI, Stokes MA (September 1988). “Effects of noise on speech production: acoustic and perceptual analyses”. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 84 (3): 917–28. doi:10.1121/1.396660. PMC 3507387. PMID 3183209.
Ziegler, A. (2020). Injury prevention of a touring professional singer with phonotrauma. Speech Pathology Casebook. Thieme Publishing, Inc.