Torticollis is a condition that affects the neck muscles and is most often found in babies. Torticollis is caused by shortened muscle on one side of the neck that causes a baby to tilt its head to one side. About 3% of infants are affected by torticollis. Fortunately, in most cases, this condition is not serious. It can easily be remedied with some simple exercises.
Types of Torticollis
There are two types of the condition. Congenital muscular torticollis is the most common type. This version of the condition is present at birth and is almost always fixable through simple treatment. Acquired muscular torticollis, on the other hand, develops after birth. This version can be linked to more serious medical problems. Acquired torticollis can affect both children and adults.
Causes of Torticollis
Congenital muscular torticollis is most often caused by the baby’s position inside the womb. Think about falling asleep on an airplane without a neck pillow. You wake up and have terrible pain in your neck because your head fell to one side and has been pulling at your neck muscle on the other side for hours. This is an example of acute acquired torticollis, which can last about a week but typically is relieved on its own.
The discomfort you feel trying to gain back full range of motion for your neck after you wake up is very similar to your baby’s situation. Except with your baby, it isn’t the matter of a few hours with their head tilted. It is a matter of weeks spent in that position while their body is still developing.
Acquired torticollis may be caused by a variety of factors, including:
- Awkward position while sleeping
- Birth injury
- Any injury that results in heavy scarring around the neck
- Herniated disk
Symptoms of Torticollis
Like all new parents, when hearing about a medical condition that could affect their baby, if you are reading this you are probably asking yourself, “How do I know if my baby has torticollis”? The most common sign that your baby is suffering from torticollis is a tilting of the head to one side, with the chin pointed towards the opposite shoulder. Other indications that your child could be suffering from this condition include:
- Limited range of motion for their head
- Your baby not tracking you with their eyes because they don’t turn their head
- Your baby struggling to turn their head
- A soft lump in your baby’s neck muscle
- A flat spot on the side of their head from laying in the same position all the time
- Trouble breastfeeding on one side
Torticollis is usually not diagnosed until a child is a few weeks old and normally begins to turn their head around.
When congenital torticollis goes untreated, it can lead to delays in milestones for your child. Fortunately, there are many easy treatments for this condition. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy for your baby to treat this condition. However, they will most likely just teach you a few exercises you can do with your baby at home as a first option.
The objective of all home exercises is to loosen the tight muscles on one side of your baby’s head and tighten the loose muscles on the other side. This is accomplished by getting your baby to stretch its neck muscles. You don’t want to attempt to stretch your baby out yourself. Instead, you want to encourage them to do the stretching. This can be done in a variety of ways.
Lightly pinching your baby’s hands and feet or wiggling around their toes or fingers can get your baby to play with their limbs. This play helps them to build their muscles. Putting toys in front of your child that draw their attention from side to side and encourage them to move their neck to follow the action is a good way to stretch their necks.
Feeding on the unpreferred side can be a great motivator. A hungry baby is going to want to eat. Even if they have to move their head in an uncomfortable way to get to the food, they will likely put in the extra work for mealtime.
Tummy time is another great way to help your child treat their torticollis and is something that all babies should be doing multiple times a day anyway. Tummy time helps your baby build up muscles and prepares them for crawling. Simply lay your baby on their tummy for 10 to 15 minutes several times a day.
While they are on their tummy, you should position yourself on the side that their head is turned away from and try to encourage them to look your way. Tummy time can be very tiring for a young baby. If they lay their head down for 15 seconds or so, then they are tired, and you should give them a break.
Most of the time, home exercises will be enough to treat your baby’s torticollis. However, sometimes visits to a physical therapist may be necessary. In very rare instances, surgery may be required to fully correct the condition. Fortunately, this is incredibly uncommon and is not typically performed until a child is at least three years old.