Justin Timberlake's Vocal Issues: Adele's Doctor Breaks Down the Possible Prognosis

Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
Justin Timberlake performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 22, 2018 in Las Vegas. 

Justin Timberlake fans in New York were probably super bummed this week when the singer was forced to postpone his Wednesday night show at Madison Square Garden due to what his team called "severely bruised vocal cords." And while the singer quickly promised to make it up to them when he returns to NYC on his birthday next year, Jan. 31, the news about his vocal injury was concerning. 

To find out what this setback could mean for the rest of Timberlake's Man of the Woods tour, Billboard reached out to esteemed laryngeal surgeon Dr. Steven Zeitels, the Eugene B. Casey professor of laryngeal surgery at Harvard best known for his career-saving vocal surgeries on Adele, Steven Tyler and Sam Smith, among many others.

First off, Zeitels -- who has no first-hand knowledge of Timberlake's case but was speaking in more general terms about vocal bleeding -- says he would not use the phrase "severely bruised" to describe possible damage to vocal cords. "My presumption when I hear that is that he had a substantial amount of vocal use, presumably because he's on tour, and maybe he had a cold or some other event, so the 'bruising' could refer to bleeding in his vocal cords," says Zeitels.

In a case like this, Zeitels would counsel a client to go on immediate, complete vocal rest and cancel shows, because if you have bleeding or ruptures in blood vessels in your vocal cords, the more you use your voice, the more damage you could cause. "This is not a situation that will solve itself," he says. "When blood goes to the vocal membranes, they don't vibrate properly." 

Depending on the amount of damage, Zeitels says that a week or two of vocal rest is the recommended course of action in order to let the cords heal, at which point an artist could resume touring; at press time a spokesperson for Timberlake tells Billboard that in addition to the postponed Wednesday show in New York, an upcoming gig at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York, on Sunday (Oct. 28) has been rescheduled for Dec. 19 and a Pepsi Center show in Denver originally scheduled for Jan. 29 has been moved up a day to Jan. 28 due to the new date for the MSG gig. Tickets for the previously scheduled events will be honored on the new dates. The spokesperson did not provide any additional information on Timberlake's vocal injury.

If an artist has a history of vocal bleeding -- such as his clients Adele, Tyler and Smith did -- Zeitels' recommendation is to undergo precision green laser vocal surgery to heal the vessels without further damaging the vocal cords; it was unclear at press time if Timberlake has had previous vocal cord issues. "If you don't straighten it out more often that not, it will tend to keep happening, and if it gets difficult to manage, you don't know what will happen in the future from the rigors of touring," he says. "Some artists can rest and finish their tour; some will say, 'Let's hold for now and have a procedure to pre-empt the bleeding.'" 

The good news is that vocal rest often works and the surgery has proven to be very effective for Zeitels' clients. In fact, he recently ran into Tyler -- whose surgery was performed more than a decade ago -- and they marveled at how well he's doing. "He's never bled again and he's got a very vigorous singing career," says Zeitels.