Definition

Torticollis is a chronic condition in which the neck muscles contract involuntarily. This causes the head to turn and tilt to one side, and the chin to point to the opposite side. Sometimes one shoulder is lifted. The muscle contraction may be constant (fixed) or may come and go (intermittent). The abnormal posture caused by tilting the head may lead to neck pain.

Torticollis may be present at birth (congenital) or develop later in life (acquired).

Causes

The causes are not well understood. Researchers are investigating genetic, environmental, or other underlying mechanisms that may play a role.

Causes may include:

  • Genetic defect
  • Infant's position during pregnancy or delivery
  • Head or neck injury
  • Damage or malfunction of the nervous system, specifically the basal ganglia, which is a deep brain structure
  • Inner ear or eye problems
  • Deformities of the bones or muscles in the neck
  • Tumors of the head or neck
  • Arthritis of the neck
  • Gastroesophageal reflux in infants (passage of acid from the stomach into the throat)
  • Use of certain medications, including:
    • Phenothiazines
    • Butyrophenones

Risk Factors

These factors increase your chance of developing this condition. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Sex: female
  • Age: newborn and children under age 10
  • Age: adults aged 30 to 60 years
  • Family member with torticollis or similar disorders

Symptoms

Symptoms may include:

  • Rotation and tilting of the head to the affected side
  • Enlargement of neck muscles, possibly present at birth
  • Stiffness of neck muscles
  • Painful spasms of neck and upper back muscles
  • Limited range of motion of the head and neck
  • Headache

Muscles of the Neck

Neck Muscles
© 2009 Nucleus Medical Art, Inc.

Torticollis ranges from mild to severe. It usually progresses slowly for 1-5 years, and then plateaus. However, torticollis may persist for life and can result in limited movement and deformed posture.

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam.

Tests may include:

  • X-rays of the neck—a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body
  • CT scan of the neck—a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the body
  • MRI scan of the neck—a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body

Treatment

The treatment for torticollis depends on whether it is congenital or acquired. Treatment generally centers on physical therapy, oral medication, botulinum toxin injections, and surgery. Possible treatments may include:

Congenital Torticollis

  • Positioning of the infant to avoid sleeping on one side
  • Positioning of toys to encourage turning of the head
  • Stretching exercises several times each day
  • In some situations, surgery to cut the muscle that causes torticollis
  • Deep brain stimulation surgery

Acquired Torticollis

  • Identifying the cause
  • Physical therapy to help relax the muscle and reduce pain
  • In some situations, surgery to cut the nerve to the muscle that is in spasm
  • Oral medications:
  • Injections
    • Injection of botulinum toxin to weaken or partially paralyze the muscle—This may help improve neck posture, but only if begun soon after torticollis begins. The drug's effect wears off after several months and treatment must be repeated.
    • Injection of alcohol or phenol to deaden the nerve that causes the muscle contraction

Each of these options has risks and benefits. Work with your doctor to find the right treatment for you.

Prevention

There are no guidelines for preventing torticollis. Early treatment may help keep the symptoms from worsening.