Torticollis

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Definition

Torticollis is a condition in which the neck muscles cause the head to turn or rotate to the side.

Alternative Names

Spasmodic torticollis; Wry neck; Loxia; Cervical dystonia; Cock-robin deformity; Twisted neck

Causes

Torticollis may be:

  • Due to changes in genes, often passed down in the family
  • Due to problems in the nervous system, upper spine, or muscles

The condition may also occur without a known cause.

With torticollis present at birth, it may occur if:

  • The baby's head was in the wrong position while growing in the womb
  • The muscles or blood supply to the neck were injured

Symptoms

Symptoms of torticollis include:

  • Limited movement of the head
  • Headache
  • Head tremor
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder that is higher than the other
  • Stiffness of the neck muscles
  • Swelling of the neck muscles (possibly present at birth)

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. The exam may show:

  • The head is rotated, tilted, or leaning forward or backward. In severe cases, the entire head is pulled and turned to one side.
  • Shortened or larger neck muscles.

Tests that may be done include:

  • X-ray of the neck
  • CT scan of the neck
  • Electromyogram (EMG) to see which muscles are most affected
  • MRI of the brain
  • Blood tests to look for medical conditions that are linked to torticollis

Treatment

Treating torticollis that is present at birth involves stretching the shortened neck muscle. Passive stretching and positioning are used in infants and small children. In passive stretching, a device such as strap, a person, or something else is used to hold the body part in a certain position. These treatments are often successful, especially if they are started within 3 months of birth.

Surgery to correct the neck muscle may be done in the preschool years, if other treatment methods fail.

Torticollis that is caused by damage to the nervous system, spine, or muscles is treated by finding the cause of the disorder and treating it. Depending on the cause, treatment may include:

  • Applying heat, traction to the neck, and massage to help relieve head and neck pain.
  • Stretching exercises and neck braces to help with muscle spasms.
  • Taking medicines such as baclofen to reduce neck muscle contractions.
  • Injecting botulinum.
  • Trigger point injections to relieve pain at a particular point.
  • Surgery of the spine might be needed when the torticollis is due to dislocated vertebrae. In some cases, surgery involves destroying some of the nerves in the neck muscles, or using brain stimulation.

Outlook (Prognosis)

The condition may be easier to treat in infants and children. If torticollis becomes chronic, numbness and tingling may develop due to pressure on the nerve roots in the neck.

Possible Complications

Complications in children may include:

  • Flat head syndrome
  • Deformity of the face due to lack of sternomastoid muscle movement

Complications in adults may include:

  • Muscle swelling due to constant tension
  • Nervous system symptoms due to pressure on nerve roots

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your provider if symptoms do not improve with treatment, or if new symptoms develop.

Torticollis that occurs after an injury or with illness may be serious. Seek medical help right away if this occurs.

Prevention

While there is no known way to prevent this condition, early treatment may prevent it from getting worse.

References

Coplay LAB. Disorders of the neck. In: Herring JA, ed. Tachdjian's Pediatric Orthopaedics. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 11.

Graham JM, Sanchez-Lara PA. Congenital muscular torticollis. In: Graham JM, Sanchez-Lara PA, eds. Smith's Recognizable Patterns of Human Deformation. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 24.

Kaplan SL, Coulter C, Fetters L. Physical therapy management of congenital muscular torticollis: an evidence-based clinical practice guideline: from the Section on Pediatrics of the American Physical Therapy Association. Pediatr Phys Ther. 2013;25(4):348-394. PMID: 24076627. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24076627.


Review Date: 5/30/2016
Reviewed By: Amit M. Shelat, DO, FACP, Attending Neurologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Neurology, SUNY Stony Brook, School of Medicine, Stony Brook, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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