Mind and Body

Adele’s Doctor Describes Vocal Cord Surgery

In this Aug. 28, 2011 file photo, singer Adele is shown at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles.

In this Aug. 28, 2011 file photo, singer Adele is shown at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles.  (AP)

“Hemorrhaged vocal cords.” 

The words conjure images of a bloody blowout, one that seems all the more dramatic because it sidelined Adele just as the 23-year-old singer was dominating the music business. But the doctor who successfully operated on Adele last week says that the condition is generally not as gruesome as it sounds. 

Citing Adele’s privacy, Dr. Steven Zeitels, director of the Voice Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, declined to discuss her case specifically. But in an interview, he described a condition that he has treated (in some form) in hundreds of singers, including Steven Tyler, Julie Andrews and Roger Daltrey, who had a pre-cancerous growth removed from his vocal cord by Zeitels just six weeks before the Who performed during the Super Bowl last year.

Adele’s record label, Columbia, and her manager declined requests for comment.

Injuries to the soft tissue of the vocal cords lead to bleeding and the formation of blister or callous-like growths. Such polyps and nodules contribute to scarring and the stiffening of the vocal cords. The less pliable these folds of mucous membrane are, the less they vibrate and oscillate properly.

Translation: “You cannot sing,” Zeitels says.

Bad singing habits, such as failing to warm up, can contribute to vocal injuries. A likelier culprit: Most pros carry on with the show even when they’re ill or over-fatigued, making their voices especially vulnerable, he notes.

The doctor, who does the bulk of his surgeries on throat cancer patients, says that there’s nothing inherently more dangerous about belting out, say, blistering hard rock vocals or muscular Adele-style soul.

He speculates that many afflicted singers go undiagnosed. That may be changing. Like Adele, Keith Urban and John Mayer both recently went through throat surgery, putting their performance schedules on hold.

The procedure Adele underwent, which typically takes about an hour, involved the use of a precision laser to remove a benign polyp and stabilize blood vessels that had ruptured. Zeitels predicts the field will be revolutionized in coming years by the use of “biomaterials” that will allow doctors to refurbish old or damaged vocal cords. This could potentially produce what he calls “super singers.” Imagine a 50-year-old seasoned veteran who is suddenly endowed with the vocal abilities she once had at age 20.

It’s unclear when Adele will return to the stage. Meanwhile, there’s a huge demand, with her “21” album continuing to ride high as the top selling title of the year by far, some nine months after it was released. (As a stop-gap, a concert DVD, “Adele Live at the Royal Albert Hall,” will be released Nov. 29).

Zeitels says a two-to-three month recovery and rehabilitation process, led by a vocal coach and/or speech pathologist, is typical. 

“More often than not, the person has been singing around an injury, so you have to decouple some of those habits,” he says.

In an entry posted on her blog Monday, Adele pined for a comeback and joked about pursuing an alternate career. 

“The operation was a success and I’m just chilling out now until I get the all clear from my doctors,” she wrote. “I best get back to practicing my mime show now.”

Click here to read more about this from the Wall Street Journal.