Routine computed tomography in the evaluation of vocal fold movement impairment without an apparent cause

Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015 Feb;152(2):308-13. doi: 10.1177/0194599814562720. Epub 2014 Dec 17.


Objective: Routine computed tomography (CT) for vocal fold movement impairment (VFMI) without an apparent cause is common. However, given increased cancer risk associated with ionizing radiation exposure, our purpose is to evaluate the utility of routine scans for these patients.

Study design: Retrospective case series.

Setting: Houston, Texas.

Subjects and methods: A 5-year review of patients with VFMI diagnosed at an academic institution was conducted. For patients without an apparent cause (eg, recent head, neck, or cardiothoracic surgery or known malignancy), CT head/neck and chest was performed to evaluate the recurrent laryngeal nerve course. Data included demographics, symptoms, radiography, and interventions. Statistical analyses were performed via χ(2) analysis.

Results: Of 406 patients with VFMI, 47 (11%) patients had no apparent cause clinically. Routine CT revealed abnormalities in 10 (21%) patients, of which only 3 (6%) could account for VFMI: benign thyroid adenoma (1), papillary thyroid cancer (1), and an esophageal mass (1). The most common lesion detected involved the thyroid. Demographic data and symptom type were not significantly associated with detection of a VFMI-attributable lesion on CT. Overall, routine CT did not identify a focal etiology in 94% patients with VFMI without an apparent cause.

Conclusion: Routine pan-CT evaluation failed to reveal an etiology in 94% of patients with VFMI without an apparent cause. Patients may be subjected to health risks associated with radiation exposure without significant diagnostic benefit. Further studies should consider more judicious use of CT in the context of risk factors and safer imaging modalities as the initial diagnostic step.

Keywords: computed tomography; idiopathic; vocal fold movement impairment; vocal fold paralysis.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve / diagnostic imaging*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Texas
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed / methods*
  • Vocal Cord Paralysis / diagnostic imaging*
  • Vocal Cord Paralysis / etiology*