Taking Care of Your Voice While Working From Home

In a unique partnership, Playbill and Weill Cornell Medicine have kicked off the summer series, “Centerstage with Healthcare Heroes.” In the first installment, Broadway star Telly Leung (“Aladdin,” “ALLEGIANCE,” and the TV series, “Glee”) led a discussion about how people can care for their voices, especially as many continue to work from home. Joining Leung was his doctor, Lucian Sulica, MD, and  Anais Rameau, MD; both are  physicians at the  Sean Parker Institute for the Voice. 

The following piece is based on the first “Centerstage with Healthcare Heroes” event.

So many people are working from home these days and are conducting lots of meetings and conference calls. How can they care for their voices when they’re using them so often? 

There are a number of ways people can protect their vocal cords in a work-from-home scenario. One is to stay hydrated; you can keep a bottle of water by your work area 

Unfortunately, the sound quality of online conference calls isn’t great, so some people are over-talking or over-functioning by speaking more loudly. That can eventually create strain, so we encourage patients to use microphones so they can sound louder with too much effort. That goes hand in hand with the of headphones so we can hear well and modulate our voices accordingly. 

It’s important to listen to our bodies, to assess the quality of our voices on a regular basis so we have an idea of how we should sound and feel.  

Are there specific triggers for vocal problems? 

Certain things can irritate the vocal cords and  cause inflammation. Sometimes it’s the sheer quantity that the voice is used, but also at play can be allergies or the frequency of upper respiratory infections. Sometimes the trigger is the work environment itself, which can include inhaled irritants, such as dust or mold.  

For those patients whose vocal problem is due to use, it’s important we don’t give in to the tendency to “blame the patient for the problem. After all, we don’t blame the athlete who gets sidelined with an injury 

Specialists think of some of the problems our patients face as bruises. We’re often trying to de-catastrophize voice challenges in our work, particularly since many solutions to vocal problems don’t involve surgical intervention. 

Let’s hear more about that. What types of approaches are doctors using at the Sean Parker Institute for the Voice? 

We work with the whole patient, so we like to use a team approach. We provide a range of treatment options, from inpatient and outpatient surgeries to behavioral therapy with speech language pathologists and vocal therapists. 

Some people avoid certain foods because they can cause acid reflux—the regurgitation of stomach acid into the esophagus—which can, in turn, irritate the vocal cords. Would you please address that?  

In truth, it’s all about balance. Many people avoid certain foods because they’re acidic. But there isn’t hard medical data to support that notionThough many people are told to skip or limit their intake of coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, or citrus, that isn’t always necessary. They’re fine in moderation. (Wdo discourage treating a voice problem with vinegar, despite a mistaken notion that it’s an effective home remedy.) 

Here’s where food comes into play: if we eat a big meal before going to bed, gravity can induce reflux. Having a lighter meal before bed is good idea.   

I’ve heard the term “vocal cache.” What is it, and how does it relate to caring for one’s voice?  

A cache—a reserved storage location—can be a useful way to think about our day-to-day vocal useboth professionally and personally. It can help patients become more aware of how we use our voices and how much vocal energy we have left at the end of the day.  

If we have a good idea of our vocal cache and wellness patterns, we can take better care of ourselves. For example, if a patient knows that they usually throw off an upper respiratory infection in four or five days, but their voice isn’t bouncing back and they don’t have the usual “cache,” that might be something we need to help them explore.