What is Cervical Dystonia? (Infant Torticollis)


Cervical dystonia, also called spasmodic torticollis, is a neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions in the neck, leading to abnormal neck movements and positions. (“Cervical” here refers to the neck, not the cervix.) It usually first appears in people during middle age, and it affects women twice as often as men. Cervical dystonia is a rare condition, affecting about 60,000 people in the United States. Cervical dystonia can be a serious and disabling condition, and it is usually painful. It can also cause anxiety and depression.

Infant torticollis, on the other hand, is fairly common among newborns, does not cause pain, is equally likely to appear in boys and girls, and is treatable, usually with at-home stretching exercises or physical therapy, though sometimes surgery may be necessary. Infant torticollis is not the same condition as adult cervical dystonia. Although both the adult and the infant condition may be called “torticollis,” that word just refers to a twisted neck. Infant torticollis is also known as congenital torticollis when it develops before birth, or wryneck.

Symptoms of Infant Torticollis

Babies with infant torticollis will tilt their heads in one direction and may have difficulty turning their necks. There may also be a lump in the neck muscle. In more severe cases, one side of the head may flatten, an ear may be in an unusual position, and there may be other abnormalities. Symptoms may appear at birth or up to three months later.

It can be hard to detect head tilts in very young infants, but there may be other symptoms that would indicate a newborn could have the condition. These signs include babies looking over one shoulder instead of turning to track with their eyes, preferring to breastfeed on one side, or having difficulty and getting frustrated when trying to turn their heads.

Doctors diagnose infant torticollis by doing physical exams to see how far babies can turn their heads. Sometimes they may take x-rays or do an ultrasound.

Treating Infant Torticollis

After diagnosing infant torticollis, a doctor may teach you some neck stretching exercises that you can do with your baby at home. Babies with this condition will have a tight muscle, called the sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM for short), that runs along the sides of their necks from behind the babies’ ears down to their collarbones. The babies will also have a muscle on the opposite side of their necks that will have grown weaker from underuse. The stretching exercises will loosen the SCM and strengthen the opposing muscle.

In some cases, doctors will recommend physical therapy or muscle-release surgery.

The doctor or physical therapist will also show parents how to:

  • Position their babies when feeding and before sleep so that the babies will turn their heads
  • Encourage their babies to turn during tummy time
  • Play using toys and sounds to make their babies turn in both directions

The good news is that most babies will get better on their own with the stretching exercises and neck position changes. Their necks will eventually straighten out, though it may take six months or sometimes a year or more.

Hip Dysplasia

Sometimes, babies with infant torticollis will also have a condition called developmental dysplasia of the hip. If there are signs that an infant has that condition, a doctor may do an ultrasound to find out.

Causes of Infant Torticollis

Infant torticollis may be caused by:

Any of these could put pressure on the SCM, which would make it tighten and cause the baby to have difficulty turning his or her neck.

Babies might also develop infant torticollis after birth, for example, if they are sitting in a car seat or bouncy seat with their heads tilted to one side for a long time.

What Happens If Infant Torticollis is Not Treated in Time?

The best time to start stretching exercises for babies with infant torticollis is when the babies are three to six months old. If babies are treated too late or not treated at all, their muscles could tighten permanently, as they get used to moving with tilted heads and using one side of their bodies more than the other. Their faces and necks could also develop unevenly. They may develop curves in their spines. And they may be unable to move their heads normally.

Also, as a baby gets older, it becomes harder to treat infant torticollis with stretching exercises alone and the baby may be more likely to need medication or surgery.

Can Infant Torticollis Be Caused by Medical Malpractice?

It’s important that infant torticollis be diagnosed early and properly. If you have a child who has problems because he or she had undiagnosed or improperly diagnosed infant torticollis, or was diagnosed too late, it’s possible your child’s doctor may have been negligent.

Improper medical care during or after a baby’s delivery might also contribute to ongoing medical problems.

If you believe a doctor, other medical professional, or hospital made medical mistakes or did not give your child proper care, whether for infant torticollis or any other condition, you should consult a medical malpractice attorney.

The Medical Malpractice Lawyers at Raynes & Lawn Are Ready to Help

If you have any concerns that your child has medical problems because of a medical professional’s mistakes, including a doctor’s failure to properly diagnose an illness or condition, we invite you to call us. Our firm has been committed to getting justice for our clients for more than 50 years, and we are honored to be named a Tier One firm for our medical malpractice representation. Call us at 1-800-535-1797 for a free consultation and case evaluation.

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