For five, six or even seven hours a day Gillian Bodgas is in Zoom meetings. In her role in human resources, she and her colleagues need to make sure employees feel comfortable with remote work and all the changes during the past year. On top of Zoom meetings for work, she spends her free time socializing with friends and family online. She joins a pub quiz with her husband’s family and the two even married over Zoom. While she enjoys connecting with loved ones and seeing co-workers, online life is wearing on her.
“When I'm on Zoom versus when I'm on a phone call, I find that I'm smiling through the whole meeting. I feel everyone's looking at me constantly,” the 32-year-old from New York City told TODAY. “I feel like I can't relax my guard for two seconds and my face physically hurts by the end of the day.”
In January, Bodgas noticed she was rubbing her neck a lot, hoping to ease the new pain she was feeling. Sometimes when she spoke her voice cracked and sounded weak. Soon, she was experiencing “unbelievable head and neck pain.” She visited her doctor who diagnosed her with acid reflux. But the doctor suspected something else was occurring and diagnosed her with vocal strain.
“Because of the way I was sitting working from home I essentially messed up the muscles in my neck and it was pushing on my vocal cords and making my voice worse,” Bodgas said.
While her vocal strain caused her much pain and distress, Bodgas learned there’s an easy solution for it — working with a speech language pathologist to learn exercises to strengthen her vocal cords and neck.
“One of them is tongue out trills. If you're familiar with like singing or acting or theater performances it’s what actors do before they go on stage. It's definitely a little silly, but it's been working for me,” Bodgas explained. “The weirdest one that I'm doing are manual stretches for my tongue and jaw. So I'm literally sticking my tongue out grabbing hold of it with both hands and pulling it ... But that's what has been helping the most.”
Video calls and vocal strain
Bodgas has been working with Sarah Brown, a speech-language pathologist at the Grabscheid Voice and Swallowing Center of Mount Sinai. Brown said since the COVID-19 pandemic started, she and her colleagues have treated more cases of vocal strain.
“In my clinical practice, I've seen a number of patients over the past year with those problems,” Brown told TODAY. “I think nationally that's been the consensus of the conversation that people are coming in with vocals strain related to video calls and it really comes down to it's just a completely different vocal demand.”
Symptoms of vocal strain include:
- Vocal fatigue.
- Change in vocal quality.
- Soreness or pain with speaking.
- Extra coughing or throat clearing.
Video calls cause different stress for a few reasons. They distort the audio feedback that people receive. People just can’t hear what they’re saying as well. So then people talk louder and louder to make sure that their voice carries. But they’re not projecting like stage actors do.
“Most people squeeze their voice to get louder,” Brown said. “It creates vocal strain, vocal fatigue, neck pain, muscle tension.”
But there’s something else that contributes to vocal strain that people might not suspect: bad posture.
“People lean over the computer, they get their head really close and then their posture is all out of alignment,” Brown said. “It also affects your neck position and then the range of motion and flexibility that your larynx and voice box have.”
Preventing and treating vocal strain
While vocal strain impacts how one sounds and can contribute to aches and pains, there are steps people can take to prevent it. Brown suggests that people upgrade their audio.
“I always recommend some kind of headphone and microphone setup. That makes you feel like you can hear the other person really well, but you can also still hear yourself,” she explained.
Improving the home office can also help.
“The other piece would be watching your posture,” she said. “So making sure that your computer is set up in a way that you feel like you can sit up nice and tall and your chair is somewhat ergonomically set up.”
People can also learn easy warm ups, such as resonate humming or lip trills.
“All of these sounds are facilitative of good voicing, vocal technique, good breathing and good resonance,” Brown said.
While people can find YouTube videos to teach them how to do vocal exercises, Brown has TikTok and Instagram accounts focused on healthy vocal habits. If people notice any problems that they suspect are related to vocal strain they should visit their doctor or a laryngologist, who specializes in speech, or an ear, nose and throat doctor first. The Grabscheid Voice and Swallowing Center takes a team approach to helping people and the integrated care makes it easier for many patients.
“You want to see a physician first to have your vocal cords looked at to make sure there is no true injury,” Brown said.
Then patients can work with a speech language pathologist with a specialization in voice therapy to help them recover.
“It teaches you what vocal health and hygiene you need to follow,” she said. “It teaches you how to actually talk.”
Bodgas feels better thanks to voice therapy and she suspects she’ll still be on a lot of Zoom calls, even if she returns to the office in some form. She feels grateful she sought help when she did.
“If you feel like something’s wrong, something’s probably wrong and you should go get checked,” Bodgas said. “It may not be what you think it is.”