A retrospective review of microsugery performed in 18 Grammy Award-winning performers treated by surgeons at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Division of Laryngeal Surgery has revealed insights into the treatment and management of vocal-cord disease in elite performers. Detailed photo-documentation is provided which demonstrates a range of microsurgical techniques that were created at MGH. This unique first-of-its kind investigation was published in a special supplement to the March 2019 issue of the Annals of Otology, Rhinology, and Laryngology, entitled Innovations in Laryngeal Surgery.

The analysis reviewed the care of elite singers – a group that won a total of 80 Grammy Awards from more than 240 nominations – who suffered from vocal-cord damage, 90 percent of whose injuries resulted from vocal trauma and overuse. The review highlights the effectiveness of surgical interventions including the use of a KTP or “green light” laser, which has been shown to dramatically improve vocal function in such patients.

“During the past 20 years of treating vocal-cord damage in singers, we’ve been able to make great strides not only in preserving patients’ voices but also in restoring these elite singers to the highest levels of their profession,” says Steven M. Zeitels, MD, director of the MGH Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation and Eugene B. Casey Professor of Laryngeal Surgery at Harvard Medical School, the author of the report. “The strategies we have identified in treating these individuals have also improved our ability to treat patients who, while not professional singers, sustain vocal-cord injury through other means and professions – such as teaching, the law, broadcasting and others that require prolonged speaking.”

The report also details the emotional and psychosocial factors which must be considered when treating these problems. “In the mid-1990s, many singers were reluctant to undergo surgical treatment for fear of making their condition worse,” says Zeitels. “Now with the demonstration of repeatable success treating these patients, many choose to tell their story publicly and encourage others to see a physician when their vocal function is strained or interrupted.”  

Zeitels notes that any patient – performer or nonperformer – can suffer from the same types of vocal-cord problems, even vocal-cord cancer.  He points out that even as amateur or recreational athletes can benefit from the lessons gleaned from the orthopedic treatment of professional athletes, so too can nonsinging individuals who experience prolonged deteriorating vocal function benefit from what has been learned treating elite singers.

“The bottom line is that if you feel that your voice is underperforming, hoarse and/or strained for over a month, you should seek out a specialist for careful examination of your vocal-cord vibration,” he says. “Whether it’s vocal trauma, cancer or other conditions, successful treatments are available.”

The study was supported by the non-profit Voice Health Institute, the National Philanthropic Trust, and the Eugene B. Casey Foundation.

Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with an annual research budget of more than $900 million and major research centers in HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer, computational and integrative biology, cutaneous biology, genomic medicine, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders, regenerative medicine, reproductive biology, systems biology, photomedicine and transplantation biology. The MGH topped the 2015 Nature Index list of health care organizations publishing in leading scientific journals and earned the prestigious 2015 Foster G. McGaw Prize for Excellence in Community Service. In August 2018 the MGH was once again named to the Honor Roll in the U.S. News & World Report list of "America's Best Hospitals."