What is Different about Diane Rehm’s Voice?

Published: November 11th, 2015

Category: UAD Student Blog

drs_event_0“The Diane Rehm Show,” which has been on the air for 36 years, has made Diane Rehm a well-known radio presence. Rehm’s ability to conduct interesting, insightful interviews made her show an international success broadcasted by more than 150 radio stations and heard by more than two million listeners. Over the years, Rehm’s voice has changed dramatically, culminating in the diagnosis of spasmodic dysphonia in 1998.

Spasmodic Dysphonia is a voice disorder characterized by involuntary movements of one or more muscles of the larynx (voice box) during speech. It is a type of dystonia. Exact pathophysiology is not known, but evidence suggests that the problem occurs in the basal ganglia, a structure responsible for regulating our muscle tone, range, and accuracy of our voluntary actions. “To oversimplify, this nervous system regulator does not function properly and produces incorrect signals, which cause the muscles to contract or relax more than they should, or at the wrong time” (National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association, 2015). There are two types of spasmodic dysphonia. When the vocal cords spasm apart (away from midline), it is ABductor type of spasmodic dysphonia, and when the vocal cords spasm together (towards midline), it is ADductor type of spasmodic dysphonia. In adductor type, the individual’s voice sounds strained, strangled, and effortful, where as in abductor, it sounds breathy with voice breaks in the middle of words and sentences. Many listeners notice that Rehm’s voice has developed a strained, effortful quality over the course of her show.

So, what happens when a person has spasmodic dysphonia? Is there any cure to this disease? Unfortunately, the answer is no. There is no permanent cure. Periodic administration of Botox injections helps to control the symptoms. There are surgical options as well. But all of these management approaches come with side effects, including loss of voice and difficulty swallowing (dysphagia). Rehm decided to receive treatment and to continue hosting her show. Every four months, Rehm receives botulinum toxin injections into her vocal cords. This therapy weakens the muscles and can improve vocal quality for some patients.

Coming back to the main question- what is different about Diane Rehm’s voice? Spasmodic dysphonia is what is different. After her first treatment, Rehm returned to the show and began to raise awareness for spasmodic dysphonia. For her work she was awarded the Communication Award by the National Council on Communicative Disorders and the Voice Education Research Awareness (VERA) Award by The Voice Foundation.

Here is a link to one of Diane Rehm’s interviews where she discusses her spasmodic dysphonia.