Torticollis, also known as wry neck or twisted neck, is a twisting of the neck that causes the head to rotate and tilt at an odd angle. Torticollis — Latin for “twisted neck” — can develop in boys or girls from birth through 3 months of age. Torticollis in infants is common —some studies report that it affects 3 in every 100 babies. Fortunately, in most cases infant torticollis is easily treatable.
Doctors aren't sure why some babies get torticollis and others don't. It might happen if a fetus is cramped inside the uterus, such as with multiples, or in an unusual position (such as being in the breech position, where the baby's buttocks face the birth canal). The use of forceps or vacuum devices to deliver a baby during childbirth also makes a baby more likely to develop it.
Some babies with torticollis also have developmental dysplasia of the hip, another condition caused by an unusual position in the womb or a tough childbirth.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Infant Torticollis?
Babies with torticollis will act like most other babies except when it comes to activities that involve turning.
A baby with torticollis might:
- Tilt the head in one direction (this can be hard to notice in very young infants)
- They prefer looking at you over one shoulder instead of turning to follow you with his or her eyes
- If breastfed, have trouble breastfeeding on one side (or prefers one breast only)
- Work hard to turn toward you and get frustrated when unable turn his or her head completely
- Dislike tummy time (can be harder to lift up their head)
Some babies with torticollis develop a flat head (positional plagiocephaly) on one or both sides from lying in one direction all the time. Some might have a small neck lump or bump, which is similar to a "knot" in a tense muscle. Both of these conditions tend to go away as the torticollis gets better.
How Is Infant Torticollis Diagnosed?
Your doctor will do an exam to see how far your baby can turn and tilt their head.
How Is Infant Torticollis Treated?
If your baby does have torticollis, the doctor might teach you neck stretching and strengthening exercises to practice at home. These help loosen the tight muscle and strengthen the weaker one on the opposite side (which is weaker due to underuse). This will help to straighten out your baby's neck.
Sometimes, doctors suggest taking a baby to a physical therapist for more treatment.
Most babies with torticollis get better through position changes and stretching exercises. It might take up to 6 months to go away completely, and in some cases can take a year or longer.
Torticollis will often self-correct when treated early — ideally, within the first month or two. If parents wait until babies are 3 months of age or older, treatment can take longer.
Infant massages and physical therapy are the usual treatment options.