Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at the Des Moines Register Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on August 12, 2023.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia around 1996.One symptom of the rare neurological disorder is a raspy voice.There is no cure for the condition, but patients can undergo speech therapy or counseling.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the nephew of John F. Kennedy, has stepped back into the spotlight recently, not only for his longshot run to secure the 2024 Democratic party nomination but also for using his campaign to promote conspiracy theories about vaccines and COVID-19.
A Morning Consult survey suggested Kennedy’s favorability among Democratic voters remains low, at a 38% approval rating, but his family’s political lineage and his controversial views have garnered the candidate some considerable attention. The poll had a margin of error of +/- 2 percentage points.
While on the campaign trail, people are once again asking about Kennedy’s distinctly raspy voice.
Kennedy, 69, previously revealed he was diagnosed in his early 40s with a rare neurological condition called spasmodic dysphonia.
“It began as a mild tremble for a couple of years,” Kennedy told Oprah Winfrey in a 2007 interview, adding that he believed his condition worsened over the years.
Here’s what we know about the disorder.
What is spasmodic dysphonia?
Spasmodic dysphonia is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary spasms in the muscles of the voice box, also known as the larynx, according to John Hopkins Medicine.
In other words, the vocal cords don’t vibrate as they typically should.
This condition can strain an individual’s ability to speak, sometimes causing their voice to sound hoarse or breathy. Humming, laughing, singing, swallowing, and crying can also be impacted.
There are three kinds of spasmodic dysphonia.
The most common type is adductor spasmodic dysphonia, in which the vocal cords tighten up, causing a person’s voice to sound strained, according to the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit medical center.
Abductor spasmodic dysphonia is where the muscle spasms cause the vocal folds to stay open. In this case, a person’s voice can sound breathy, according to the medical center.
Some people can have a rare mix of both types.
What causes spasmodic dysphonia?
The exact cause of spasmodic dysphonia is unknown, according to Michigan Medicine of the University of Michigan.
“Spasmodic dysphonia is thought to be caused by abnormal functioning in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia,” according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. “The basal ganglia help coordinate the movements of muscles throughout the body. “
Research has also found abnormalities in the areas of the cerebral cortex — the area of the brain that controls muscle movement, the NIDCD wrote.
Spasmodic dysphonia may also be inherited, but a specific gene for the disorder has not yet been identified.
Is spasmodic dysphonia painful?
The condition is not known to be painful, but it does make the ability to speak difficult.
When asked if it hurts to talk, Kennedy told Winfrey: “No, but it’s an effort.”
Kennedy recently told NewsNation that he feels the condition makes it “problematical” for people to listen to him.
“I cannot listen to myself on TV,” he joked. “So I feel sorry for you guys having to listen to me.”
Can spasmodic dysphonia be cured?
Symptoms of spasmodic dysphonia, which is a chronic condition, often develop around middle age, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
The symptoms can also be more acute when under stress.
There is no cure for the condition, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System. But there are treatment options available, including speech therapy and psychological counseling to treat mild cases. Botox injections are also an option.
“Each Botox injection provides about three months of relief from symptoms and there is no limit to the number of Botox injections you may receive for this condition,” according to Penn Medicine.
How rare is spasmodic dysphonia?
The disorder is rare and impacts about 1 per 100,000 people, according to a 2011 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Other notable people with spasmodic dysphonia include “Hellboy” actress Selma Blair, CBS News correspondent Jeff Pegues, and journalist Diane Rehm.
Kennedy’s campaign team could not provide comment before the time of this story’s publishing.