Torticollis | Symptoms and Causes

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What are the symptoms of torticollis? 

Congenital muscular torticollis 

  • The child has a limited range of motion in the head and neck.
  • The head tilts to one side while the chin tilts to the other.
  • A small, pea-sized lump (or “pseudo tumor”) is sometimes found on the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle.
  • Asymmetries of the head and face, indicating plagiocephaly, may also be present.
  • Musculoskeletal problems, such as hip dysplasia, are sometimes present. 

Acquired torticollis

  • There is limited range of motion in the head and neck.
  • The head tilts to one side while the chin tilts to the other.
  • With a condition called benign paroxysmal torticollis, there may be recurrent episodes, or “attacks,” of head tilting; often these attacks are accompanied by other symptoms, such as vomiting, irritability and/or drowsiness.
  • Additional symptoms vary according to the cause of the torticollis. 

Note: Children who develop torticollis that is associated with neck pain after trauma (even minor trauma) should be evaluated right away to make sure they do not have any  subluxation of the C1 or C2 vertebrae. In addition, children who develop painful torticollis at the same time as a fever that is caused by an infection in the pharynx (cavity behind the nose, mouth and larynx) or retropharyngeal space (the area behind the pharynx) need to see a doctor immediately. If left untreated, these complications can lead to a rare disorder called Grisel’s syndrome.

What are the causes of torticollis?

Because there are different types of torticollis, it is important to know the root cause so that your child can get the proper care and treatment as quickly as possible.

Congenital muscular torticollis  

For children with congenital muscular torticollis, the most common form of pediatric torticollis, the SCM muscle becomes shortened and contracted. The SCM muscle runs along each side of the neck and controls how the head moves — side to side, and up and down. 

There are a few common reasons why the SCM muscle may have become contracted and cause your child’s head to tilt to one side: 

  • The way your baby was positioned in the womb before birth
  • Abnormal development of the SCM muscle
  • Trauma or damage to the muscle during birth 

In far less common cases, congenital muscular torticollis may occur as a symptom of other underlying conditions, including: 

  • congenital bony abnormalities of the upper cervical spine, with subluxation (abnormal rotation) of the C1 vertebrae over the C2 vertebrae in the cervical spine (the part of the spine that encompasses the neck).
  • congenital bony abnormalities of the upper cervical spine, which are most often associated with other congenital skeletal anomalies, such as:
  • shortened neck
  • short limbs (arms and legs)
  • dwarfism
  • congenital webs of skin running along the side of the neck
  • Klippel-Feil syndrome, a rare birth defect that causes some of the neck vertebrae to fuse together
  • achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder
  • multiple epiphyseal dysplasia, a disease that affects the development of bone and cartilage in the long bones of the arms and legs
  • Morquio’s syndrome, an inherited metabolic disorder that prevents the body from breaking down sugar molecules 

Acquired torticollis

For children who have acquired torticollis, the causes vary widely and range in severity from benign (not serious) to very serious. Some causes of acquired torticollis include: 

  • a mild (usually viral) infection
  • minor trauma to the head and neck
  • gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
  • respiratory and soft-tissue infections of the neck
  • abnormalities in the cervical spine (such as atlantoaxial subluxation)
  • vision problems (called ocular torticollis)
  • abnormal reaction to certain medications (called a dystonic reaction)
  • spasmus nutans (a usually benign condition that causes head bobbing along with uncontrolled eye movements)
  • Sandifer syndrome (a rare condition combining gastroesophageal reflux with spasms in the neck)
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