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The larynx

Men and women discussing laryngeal cancer

This page tells you about the larynx. You can find information below about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The larynx

The larynx is another name for the voice box. It is a tube about 2 inches (5cm) long in adults. The larynx sits above the windpipe (trachea) in the neck, in front of the upper part of the food pipe (pharynx). 

The larynx is where the breathing and digestive systems separate. When you breathe in, air travels through your mouth, larynx, windpipe (trachea), and then into your lungs. When you swallow, a part of the larynx called the epiglottis closes tightly over your airway. This stops food and saliva going into your lungs. When the epiglottis is closed, food and drink can go down your food pipe and into your stomach.

The vocal cords are two bands of muscle that form a V shape inside the larynx. These vibrate together when air passes between them. This produces the sound of your voice.

The parts of the larynx

The larynx is made of several pieces of a smooth, shiny tissue called cartilage. The cartilage is surrounded by fibrous tissue. The largest cartilage of the larynx is the Adam’s apple. This the lump in the front of your neck. The proper name for this is the thyroid cartilage.

The lymph nodes

Like all other parts of the body, the area around the larynx contains lymph nodes. These are often removed during cancer surgery and examined to see if they contain any cancer cells.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About laryngeal cancer section.

 

 

What your larynx does

The larynx is another name for the voice box. It is a tube about 2 inches (5cm) long in adults. It sits above the windpipe (trachea) in the neck and in front of the food pipe. The food pipe in the upper part of the neck is called the pharynx.

The larynx

  • Protects your windpipe during swallowing
  • Allows the air you breathe in to reach the lungs
  • Produces sound for speaking

The larynx is the place in your body where the breathing and digestive systems separate. When you breathe in, air travels through your mouth, larynx, windpipe (trachea), and then into your lungs.

When you swallow, a part of the larynx called the epiglottis closes tightly over your airway. This flap of cartilage stops food and saliva going into your lungs. When the epiglottis is closed, food and drink can go down your food pipe (oesophagus) and into your stomach.

The vocal cords are two bands of muscle that form a V shape inside the larynx. These vibrate together when air passes between them. This produces the sound of your voice.

 

The parts of the larynx

The larynx is made of several pieces of a smooth, shiny tissue called cartilage. The cartilage is surrounded by fibrous tissue. The largest cartilage of the larynx is the Adam’s apple. This is the lump in the front of your neck. This is often much easier to see in men than women. The proper name for this is the thyroid cartilage.

Diagram is the larynx

There are 3 main parts to the larynx. These parts are

  • The supraglottis – the area above the vocal cords that contains the epiglottis cartilage
  • The glottis – the area of the vocal cords
  • The subglottis – the part below the vocal cords, containing the cricoid cartilage that continues down into the windpipe

Cancer can develop in any or all of these parts of the larynx.

 

The hypopharynx

The hypopharynx is at the lower end of the pharynx. It is the space just behind the larynx. The pharynx is the space that connects the back of the nose to the windpipe. There are 3 parts to the hypopharynx the

  • Piriform sinus 
  • Posterior pharyngeal wall
  • Postcricoid pharynx

Hypopharyngeal cancers most commonly develop in the part called the piriform sinuses. This is the space behind the layrnx.

The hypopharynx helps push food into the foodpipe and not into the windpipe when we swallow. Cancer can develop in the hypopharynx.The symptoms are similar to the symptoms of cancer of the larynx. Treatment is also often the same.

 

Diagram showing the parts of the pharynx

 

The lymph nodes

Like all other parts of the body, the area around the larynx contains lymph nodes. These are also called lymph glands. They are small bean shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system. They help to control infection by filtering anything foreign to the body out of the lymphatic fluid, including bacteria and viruses.

Diagram showing the lymph nodes of the head and neck

The lymph nodes are often the first place that cancer cells reach when they break away from a tumour. So they are often removed during cancer surgery and examined closely to see if they contain any cancer cells. Doctors take into account whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes when they are finding out the stage of the cancer. The stage of your cancer helps doctors to decide on the most suitable treatment for you. There is more about the lymph glands in the section about the lymphatic system.

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Updated: 22 August 2013