Understanding and managing laryngospasms

2014-01-01 01:47

Symptoms of Laryngospasm vary from person to person however most people describe it with any of the following descriptions.

According to Edward C. Rosenow III, M.D. with the Mayo clinic, Laryngospasm (luh-RING-go-spaz-um) is a brief spasm of the vocal cords that temporarily makes it difficult to speak or breathe. With words like brief and temporary if actually sounds quite innocuous. For those who experience it however it is nothing less than terrifying.

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night terrified. Your throat feels as though it is closing up and you are choking. Some people describe it as if you are drowning. Or perhaps you start to cough and instead of the coughing spell ending, all of a sudden your throat closes up and you feel as though you are gasping for air and breathing through the tiniest of tubes. That is what a laryngospasm feels like. I cannot imagine any greater fear than not being able to breathe. The larynx is the pathway to your lungs and is ever so important. It is not something you want to have spasm.

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The larynx is the area in the neck that contains your vocal cords. It is approximately 2 inches long and is located below your pharynx and above your trachea. We use it to breathe, talk, and swallow. It is protected by the Adam’s apple. As you inhale, air goes into the nose and or mouth, then through the larynx, down to the trachea, and then into the lungs. The openings of the esophagus (food tube) and the larynx are in close proximity in the throat. When you swallow, the epiglottis closes off the larynx to keep food out of the windpipe and in your esophagus where it belongs. When everything works as it should it is a marvelous process. Air goes in from the atmosphere and into lungs and back out. You can speak through air passing through your vocal cords. However if you have a spasm in your larynx it can be terrifying. You cannot speak. You cannot swallow. You are unable to “catch your breath”.

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Symptoms of Laryngospasm
The symptoms vary from person to person however most people describe it with any of the following descriptions:

  • Abrupt and swift onset. No warning.
  • Typically, it lasts less than 60 seconds, however it feels much, much longer when it occurs.
  • Occurs anytime (day or night) but is most noticeable when eating and something feels like it “went down the wrong way”. It causes a feeling of choking.
  • May occur in the middle of the night, causing you to be awakened unable to breathe.

There are many theories. Here are the more common causes:

GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease)
Even small amounts of exposure to gastric acid may cause significant laryngeal damage. It can result in hoarseness, increased coughing, increased throat clearing and laryngospasm. Individuals with Gastroesophageal reflux disease may benefit from adopting the following habits:

  • No eating within two - three hours of bedtime or lying down to rest.
  • Sleep on your left side may prevent food from pressing on the opening to your esophagus.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Elevate the head of your bed using blocks of at least 6 inches.
  • Avoid overeating.
  • Reduce fatty, fried, spicy, or acidic foods.
  • Reduce caffeine, carbonated beverages and alcohol.
  • Stop smoking.

Nerve damage
Nerve injury can occur either from a surgical procedure such as removal of your thyroid or from complications with anesthesia or tracheal intubation. Being on a ventilator via an endo-tracheal tube in your throat for greater than 10 days increases your risk.


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excellent article, gives great detail about what is happening ....very informative .....surprised at the end...there are holistic and homeopathic way to help this?.....THANK YOU Tracy.......I always know to ask you and you never ever fail to deliver!
Glad to be of assistance Deb. I am always looking for article ideas so keep them coming!
I suffer from VCD attacks/laryngospasms a few times a year for the past 20 years or so. You mention that swallowing is not possible during an attack, but I have never experienced a problem with swallowing during one. I can't breathe during one, but I can definitely swallow. I'm curious where this information came from?
I just experienced this for the 3rd or 4th time in 6 months and yes I myself couldn't swallow I've never heard of this diagnosis b4. I Google unable to breathe or swallow
I have recently started having these episodes, hence my being on the website. I didn't know what was going on, but as the article describes so well, my throat closes up and i cannot swallow, and i have difficulty breathing. The first time this happened i was absolutely terrified. So I'm not sure where the information in the article comes from, i just wanted to assure you, this description is very accurate for me at least.
The condition described by almost all the comments on this article is classical laryngospasm, caused by a hyper irritable Larynx usually triggered by acid reflex of stomach contents up through the (food tube)and onto the vocal cords. As a physician who has been experiencing this condition sporadically over the last 25 years, I'm aware that most of my colleagues have never heard of it nor realize how terrifying it can be. Anastasio allergist a very thin that you with laryngospasm, ia well known complication of removing the breathing tube at the end of surgery.Recently I read that mint can be a triggering factor for this condition. Subsequently I noticed that whenever I chewed spearmint gum I would develop the typical paroxysmal coughing that often precedes an episode of laryngospasm . Mint is clearly an inciting factor in my case. The straw breathing technique on the Internet described by the physician is extremely helpful. A cold or flu especially with prominent coughing is a major trigger for an event.
It's nice to hear from a physician who is aware of this. I can remember exactly when I first experienced it - driving on a country road in March 1999, not eating or drinking. Several doctors since have been unable to diagnose or treat. As a child, apple caused throat restrictions but not to the extent it happens now. It only happens a few times a year and, after having my gall bladder removed, I was free of it for 9 months. When it happens, I can't swallow and spit anything out that is in my mouth, even water. I close my mouth and concentrate on breathing through my nose until the 'trapdoor' opens.
That's exactly what it feels like a trap door. Today I had just gotten into the shower when I couldn't breathe. I had to turn off the water and get out before passing out. My husband jumped out of bed and new what was going on. I felt dizzy and had to focus on my breathing. These episodes started back in June of this year. I had an endoscopy with good results. No problems according to the doctor. He put me on Meds for acid reflux. Only took it for a month then stopped, because it leaches calcium from my bones. I think spicy and fatty foods (acid reflux) trigger these spasms. This has been very consistent with my episodes. Not sure if I need to follow up with a ENT or a different kind of specialist. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.
I have had this problem fir years but never saw a dr about. Although I am going to. Juice and vinegar is what gets me. I always panick when it happens.
vinegar is an acid and any acid can irritate the larynx and cause laryngospasm, So if you suffer from this entity, do not gargle with any acid or anything caustic or containing mint or pepper.
Depending on the cause there are different symptoms. If it is associated more with GERD swallowing is difficult. If it is more associated with a vocal cord issue breathing is more affected then swallow. It is a terrible situation to deal with...esp if your doctor does not understand. How have you been able to deal with this for 20 years. Any suggestions? I am just curious.
Another consideration for Lorelei might be bronchospasm versus laryngospasm. Lorelei, what does your doctor tell you about your symptoms? Tracy, do you agree that might be possible since the problem is breathing? Either way, Lorelei, are you under care for this? It is a long time to deal with such a difficult issue.
Coupled with my chronic sinus issues, the ENT said the laryngospasms suggested a diagnosis of LPR and has been treating me with PPIs. They have not improved my sinus symptoms, though. I never realized before that my choking spells were something treatable so I just assumed I was prone to choking and never looked into it. It wasn't until I happened to have a choking spell just prior to a scheduled doctor's visit that I was able to describe it in enough detail that she immediately suggested laryngospasm. I had mentioned these spells to other doctors over the years and none of them thought anything of it. I had an endoscopy and the gastroenterologist says my throat looks healthy, with no obvious signs of a problem. I do not have heartburn, and on the rare occasions I get a reflux episode, it does not cause a laryngospasm. My gut feeling is dehydration is the biggest culprit for me, since it feels like my throat dries out and seals shut. During an attack, I swallow air compulsively, so I know my swallowing isn't affected. Thank you both for your suggestions. I hope I can get this figured out someday.
Yes! I too have worse symptoms and more frequent attacks when I'm dehydrated, in a poorly circulated environment, too warm, or stuffy, or have over done it with food or alcohol. When I'm grain and dairy free, I also get relief.
This is me too. Wake up, so dry, throat feels like it stuck together. Can't stop swallowing, involuntary. Like a reflex. Then eyes and nose starts running, phlegm coats my throat. Can't breathe in. Have to calm down in order to inhale. Any answers?
I have just had my first episode of coughing then my throat closing I was sleeping at the time though I was going to die.Im glad I found this site it has given me a little comfort.I have had a cough for a month and it was getting better and now this I do suffer from reflux and take medication for this but after this frightening experience am frightened to cough.
Lorelei, Are there any dental issues? Sometimes sinusitis, swallowing issues and dental or gum problems are tied together also. It is amazing how mouth bacteria can affect so much. Just wondering if that's something that has also been explored.
Very true Kathleen. Laryngospasm due to Vocal Cord Disorder however has different presenting symptoms then GERD or viral presentation. I have had patients that I have cared for that have had symptoms for decades and have had to learn "to deal with it". Because unless you are having the episode in front of your doctor too often you are not taken seriously. Frustrating I am sure.
I have had this problem for over 20 years and have found the best way to deal with it is to grasp the front of my neck and hold it tightly until the spasm stops. I don't know how this works but it has helped me.
Hi, I've had similar experiences over the last 2yrs or so, my throat would literally without warning close up and a sharp tingling unpleasant sensation would occur on either side of my throat and immediately it goes into spasm, it may seem like a long time but as stated probably only lasts a minute, I would have a sensation that its going to happen again for at least 20mins after it has stopped!! it scarey as heck, the choking and coughing I do is unreal, it happened to me as I was driving and found it hard to concentrate on controlling the car :o ... Happened during the night too, now that was horrific!! spoke to my doctor he told me it was caused by gastric reflux, probably is?!! but he didn't advise or suggest anything only that unless it happens daily he can't do anything for me. I already take gasro resistant tablets but they don't do much for the spasms, I also would have a constant 'clearing' of my throat daily its really annoying especially in public when you have the sudden urge to have a big cough to help clear your throat but it really don't help!!! any advice would be helpful :)
what works for me is drinking water , drink it like it goes the wrong way then cough it up , that clears the irritation
This started, very suddenly, about 5 weeks ago and as everyone says, was really frightening. Reading the other comments has helped me realise it has probably been caused by the large number of flights I've been on. It is known that the air in planes is very dry. My symptoms have improved, although not gone, by drinking a lot more water.
I had a severe case of this and went to therapy which has help immensely. Say Zzzzzzzz and Shhhhhhh several times a day and blow out your nose if you feel an attack coming on. It distracts the throat from thinking it's in control and it's a mind shift thing. It sounds crazy but it works and I feel more secure about this not happening. People have called 911 several times on me. I hope it works for you as well as it has been for me. I drink less coffee and wear my cpac which helps with the night attacks.
I get this alot. Can u die from this. This is so scary.
I am so thankful that I stumbled on this information because I have experienced my throat closing for many years. I thought I was just choking, but now I know without a shadow of a doubt that it is Laryngospasms. Decide to get serious to find out about what it was due to having an extra long bout of it recently and would prefer not to experience them again. I'm not sure if I could do the pursed lip breathing as my vocal folds do not allow any air in for awhile and it feels as if I am going to pass out, just glad to know there are more techniques and possibilities for them not to occur, wishfully never again. They are terrifying to say the least.
Thank you so much for this article. I have experienced episodes of this for about 30 years! Awake and from sleep, at home and out and about, alone and with others. Every time it happens it is terrifying, I am in a state of real fear that I am going to die every time and have even dashed out into the street to get help as so frightened. Last night, however, I had a particularly nasty on and decided that I really needed to find out what was happening. I will see the doctor, but as you wisely said, understanding what is happening makes you less fearful of the experience. It is this sort of initial information re medical matters on the web that is a huge help to some people (e.g. it's difficult for me to see a doctor as I have M.E.). Knowing what is happening, and why, has reassured me. Grateful also to those who share their own experieces - we're not alone in having this!
No you are not alone. Tonight I could almost cry because I found all this info about what has me so scared for my life. It is terrifying Everytime and wrongly diagnosed over and over. I am a professional kayaker and it happens to me occasionally and scared me to the core. I am also just so happy to have found what is really going on at least!! I thought my upper sphincter was not closing properly as it always feels that I'm drowning. Now I know it's a small amount of liquid that inccures the spasm and it all makes sense. Wow!!
I never had a name for this, thank you. Mine started years ago, a few times a year, and it seems like it is happening more often. I will be honest that I find it happening when I'm eating too quickly, but not food, liquid, or candy. Super sweet, powdery candy like mints can trigger it. When it happens my throat totally closes up and in a panic that I cannot breath ( as I seem to suffer panic on other things as well), I try and take small gasps of air. My children will run up and say what is it, or what can I do, and of course I cannot talk. The last time it happened, I mentally made myself slow down my gasps for air, and that seemed to help. Also when it is almost done, a sip of something cold seems to help it finish. I hate it..it scares me to death, and I'm started to worry that my fear will trigger it to happen more :(
This started happening to me in 2009. Every once in awhile if I swallowed while turning my head a certain way at the same time my throat would close up and it would feel like I was inhaling through a pinhole. It was always terrifying. But I could exhale normally and even speak while I was exhaling. It was finally discovered by MRI that I had 2 large tumors attached to the backside of my thyroid. I had thyroid cancer. When they removed my thyroid in 2011 I stopped having these episodes - until today. I was in a restaurant and I took a sip of water and couldn't breathe at all - not even the pinhole. I tried to breathe in several times and couldn't get any air in. I think I terrified everyone around me. This time when I finally could get a tiny bit of air in I couldn't speak while exhaling. I'm very upset that this happened again and am wondering if maybe I have a lot of scar tissue that may be causing the problem. I'm also wondering if there's anything like an epi pen that would help open the airway faster.
Breathing exercises are fine IF you are able to breathe, but when it happens to me, I cannot breathe in or out! What do I do when this happens? I have tried to turn on the shower and get the steam flowing in the bathroom, or sometimes have been alone and begun to panic and desperately get outside to moist air hoping it will help. Mine usually occur after I have been sick, with sore throat or sinus, and always occur when I'm sleeping, so I get no rest for a few days. I have tried a humidifier by my bedside, but that doesn't work. When I'm conscious I can prevent them, when I'm asleep is when I fall victim... help?