Background: The hoarse voice is a common presentation in the adult ENT clinic. It is estimated that otolaryngology/voice clinics receive over 50 000 patients with dysphonia each year. Good vocal function is estimated to be required for around 1/3 of the labour force to fulfil their job requirements. The assessment and management of the patient with a hoarse voice is potentially a complex and protracted process as the aetiology is often multi-factorial. This article provides a guide for the clinician in the general ENT clinic to make a concise, thorough assessment of the hoarse patient and engage in an evidence based approach to investigation and management.
Method: Literature search performed on 4 October 2008 using EMBASE, MEDLINE, Cochrane databases using subject headings hoarse voice or dysphonia in combination with diagnosis, management, investigation, treatment, intervention and surgery.
Results: General vocal hygiene is beneficial for non organic dysphonia but the evidence base for individual components is poor. There is a good evidence base for the use of voice therapy as first line treatment of organic dysphonia such as vocal fold nodules and polyps. There is little evidence for surgical intervention as first line therapy for most common benign vocal fold lesions. Surgery is, however, the treatment of choice for hoarseness due to papillomatosis. Both CO(2) laser and microdissection are equally acceptable modalities for surgical resection of common benign vocal fold lesions. Laryngopharyngeal reflux is commonly cited as a cause of hoarseness but the evidence base for treatment with gastric acid suppression is poor. Despite the widespread use of proton pump inhibitors for treating laryngopharyngeal reflux, there is high quality evidence to suggest that they are no more effective than placebo.
Conclusion: A concise and thorough approach to assessment in the general ENT clinic will provide the diagnosis and facilitate the management of the hoarse voice in the majority of cases. Voice therapy is an important tool that should be utilised in the general ENT clinic and should not be restricted to the specialist voice clinic. If there is no improvement after initial measures, the larynx appears normal and/or the patient has failed initial speech & language therapy, referral to a specialist voice clinic may be helpful. More research is still required particularly with regard to laryngopharyngeal reflux which is often cited as an important cause of hoarseness but is still poorly understood.