Is ASMR whispering bad for your throat or vocal cords?

The ASMR artist, Deni ASMRCZ, recently asked me if whispering is bad for the throat or vocal cords.

A 2006 research article stated, “For years, otolaryngologists and voice therapists have warned voice patients that whispering causes more trauma to the larynx than normal speech. However, no large series of patients has ever been examined fiberoptically during whispering to test this hypothesis.

In 2011, The New York Times asked Dr. Robert T. Sataloff, chairman of the otolaryngology department at Drexel University College of Medicine why clinicians recommend that patients avoid whispering.  He said this recommendation was based on “years of pronouncement and almost no research, like so much in medicine.”

Even when searching for more recent research publications, there doesn’t seem to be any research studies which clearly answer this question yet, but there are personal experiences, clinical opinions, and physiological studies.

I’ll cover all three of these types of sources.

Let’s begin in 2009 with the first ASMR artist, WhisperingLife.  She mentioned in some of her videos that whispering sometimes hurt her voice.  This may have been one of the reasons her videos were relatively short and averaged about 10 minutes long.

Jump forward to 2019.  I’ve created over 200 podcast episodes for the Sleep Whispers podcast of pure whispering, with an average length of 40 minutes each and a max length of 90 minutes.  I’ve never felt any discomfort in my throat or voice, but I do often feel like I am running out of breath.

So these two simple and personal examples highlight that whispering may create different types of discomfort for different individuals.

Let’s see what further evidence I can uncover for the effect of whispering on the throat and vocals.

First, a technical definition of whispering provided by a 2012 research article,

Whispered voice is an unvoiced mode of phonation in which the vocal folds do not vibrate normally but are instead adducted sufficiently to create audible turbulence as the speaker exhales during speech.”

Is that harmful?

A simple Google search for “Is whispering bad for your throat?” brings up lots of results and they mostly will tell you “yes.”  These sources include the National Institutes of Health (U.S.), National Health System (U.K.), and Scientific American.

Unfortunately, none of those sources provided a link to a research study that demonstrated whispering is bad for your throat or vocals.

I next moved on to PubMed, a search engine for research articles related to biology and medicine.  Below are some relevant studies I found.

A 1984 study – key points

  • Quiet, relaxed, low effort whispering increases airflow by 2x normal.
  • Loud, forced, high effort whispering increases airflow by 3x normal.

A 1989 study – key points

  • Whispering involves vocal-fold changes and supraglottal constriction.
  • Loud, forced, high effort whispering resulted in slightly greater changes in supraglottal constriction than quiet, relaxed, low effort whispering.
  • The greatest laryngeal differences during whispering, regardless of low effort or high effort whispering, were observed between research participants, with about 40%  showing almost no vocal-fold contact.

A 1994 study – key points

  • The posterior cricoarytenoid muscle keeps the glottis open to prevent vocal fold vibration during whispering.
  • The thyropharyngeus muscle likely controls supraglottal constriction during whispering (there is greater supraglottal constriction with harsh whispering than gentle whispering).
  • These two muscles are primarily involved in breathing and swallowing functions of the throat area, they later evolved to be involved with speech.
  • Fun fact from discussion, “It is also impossible for young infants to produce whispering.”

A 1997 study – key points

  • MRI analysis confirmed that the supraglottal structures are constricted during whispering, and also that they are shifted downward, attaching to the vocal fold to prevent vocal fold vibration completely during whispering.

A 2006 study – key points

  • Researchers investigated the supraglottic hyperfunction and vocal fold closure during the normal and whispered phonation of 100 patients with voice complaints
  • For 69% of the patients, whispering put more strain on the vocal cords because they were squeezing their vocal cords together more tightly to produce the whisper.
  • For 18% of the patients, whispering was similar to normal phonation.
  • For 13% of the patients, whispering was easier on the vocal cords than normal phonation.
  • Overall, the study hypothesized that some patients (but not all) with vocal complaints may strain and further injure their vocal cords with whispering.

My summary

  • Whispering is speaking while not vibrating your vocal cords, but this is an active process.
  • The active process of whispering involves increased air passage, vocal cord movements, throat muscle contractions, and active suppression to keep the vocal cords from vibrating.
  • Low effort, ASMR style whispering may put less strain on the throat and vocal cords than high effort, harsh whispering.
  • Some individuals, regardless to their style of whispering, may put a  greater strain on their throat and vocal cords when they whisper compared to others.
  • A person with healthy larynx structures may cause discomfort due to physical strain with chronic whispering.
  • A person with any type of prior damage to the larynx, could slow their healing or worsen the injury by whispering.

Overall, I do think frequent or long term whispering can create discomfort for some individuals.  So proceed with caution until you find out if you fall into the “whispering bothers my throat” group, or the “whispering doesn’t bother my throat” group.

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This post brought to you by ASMR University.  A site with the mission of increasing the awareness, understanding, and research of the Art and Science of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.

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