How to Identify Muscular vs. Mucosal Fatigue and What to do About it
Updated: May 19
Vocal fatigue is a very common complaint for speakers and singers. When someone says, “my voice is really tired” it can mean a lot of different things. An important distinction is sussing out the difference between what I call “muscular fatigue” and “mucosal fatigue.”
Muscular fatigue refers to tired muscles -usually some combination of the extrinsic muscles of the larynx- that result in feelings of muscle strain, tightness and increased effort from poor use of the muscles of the voice. Think poor manner of voicing and inefficient use of the machine.The tone quality of the voice can change, as well, and have a hoarse or fuzzy, unclear quality, gravel, or even onset delays and breathiness. This type of fatigue usually shows up sooner and resolves sooner, meaning you may begin to notice onset of muscular fatigue and strain as early as only after 20-30 minutes of singing or speaking. But, if you stop and rest the voice for a little while, even just up to an hour or so, it can bounce back to normal pretty quickly. This suggests that there is something amiss technically in the way the voice is being produced and can be related to any number of things such as breath coordination, extrinsic muscle tension patterns, poor resonance, tongue and jaw tension patterns, or pressing and pushing the voice louder than necessary.
Mucosal fatigue means there is likely vocal fold swelling, elevations, or “padding” that develops on the vibrating edge of the vocal folds from too much vibration or effortful vibration. This can also result in similar sensations or changes in voice quality as above, but does tend to affect the vocal range more, especially loss of high, soft singing and a more obvious loss of voice and onset delays.
"[Mucosal Fatigue] does tend to affect the vocal range more, especially loss of high, soft singing and a more obvious loss of voice and onset delays"
This type of fatigue tends to show up a little later after excessive voice use, sometimes not even being that noticeable until you’ve been silent for a while OR even the next morning after sleeping. Swelling or fatigue from overuse also typically takes longer to resolve AND recover, meaning more extended periods of voice rest and reduced vocal demands are necessary to recover to one’s normal baseline.
So, how do we know the difference?
Paying close attention and monitoring the timing and common patterns for these two variations of vocal fatigue and changes in the voice can be helpful. If the onset and recovery are pretty quick, then you are likely dealing with muscular strain and this needs to be addressed technically and interspersed with some vocal rest. We can also make improvements in this type of struggle by building strength and stamina in the voice which over time increases endurance for longer periods of voice use. If you notice more difficulties that evening or the next morning then it could be more related to the amount, and sometimes manner of voice use.
Both of these scenarios usually involve a sense of increased effort, so learning how to monitor one's own effort level can be an important part of taking measures to reduce vocal fatigue. It is also entirely possible for someone to find they are dealing with a combination of muscular and mucosal issues so it’s important that these cycles and patterns are investigated and explored under the care of a qualified voice professional. A combination of self- monitoring and increased awareness for warning signals are also essential to detecting potential problems before they become an issue.
"The body gives warning signals for a reason. If we listen and respond appropriately, rather than pushing past those limitations, we can maintain healthy vocal habits and manage our day-to-day vocal demands with a more reliable voice with consistency and confidence."
Tips for Managing Muscular and Mucosal Fatigue
Managing Muscular Fatigue
Voice rest (especially stopping and giving voice time to recovery when you begin to notice symptoms)
Reduce volume of voice
Consider a vocal cool-down following extreme voice use
Vary pitch, rate, and volume with adequate breath/airflow during speech causing the vocal load to be distributed more evenly
Increase hydration (water intake, saline nebulizer)
Strength training to build laryngeal stamina and endurance is great. Short frequent practice is better for this. You must build a voice slowly and gradually to have these types of gains. But this also requires taxing the system, so pushing it to its limits so that you can have endurance gains.
Managing Mucosal Fatigue
Voice rest (more frequent voice rest off and on throughout busy days)
Self-monitor and rest voice as much as necessary until you return to normal baseline
Maintain best baseline with relative voice rest and vocal pacing
Short, frequent bursts of resetting the voice with ideal vocal tasks (SOVTs, etc.)
The body gives warning signals for a reason. If we listen and respond appropriately, rather than pushing past those limitations, we can maintain healthy vocal habits and manage our day-to-day vocal demands with a more reliable voice with consistency and confidence.
If you experience vocal fatigue regularly there are absolutely strategies, tools and training to help you overcome this bothersome and sometimes debilitating vocal symptom. This is just one example of how Sonnenberg Voice supports and helps speakers and singers live their best vocal life.
If you're dealing with vocal fatigue and want to book a session with Lori email firstname.lastname@example.org.