What Is Infant Torticollis?
Infant torticollis is a condition that causes difficulty or pain in turning the head. The condition can occur from the positioning of the baby in the womb, especially if the baby was cramped or feet-first. It may also develop from a difficult delivery.
Infant torticollis can be easily recognized because it causes a baby’s head to continuously tilt to one side. In fact, torticollis is the Latin word for “twisted neck.”
Types of Infant Torticollis
- Congenital infant torticollis: Present at birth and responds well to physical therapy
- Acquired infant torticollis: Occurs at 4-6 months of age or later and can be a sign of more serious medical conditions
Congenital muscular torticollis is the most common type of infant torticollis. Since acquired infant torticollis may indicate the presence of other conditions, it’s important to take action immediately to get proper treatment.
Infant Torticollis Causes and Risk Factors
Infant torticollis is fairly common, occurring in about 1 in 300 births. In some cases, the cause of infant torticollis remains unknown, even after the condition resolves itself.
That said, infant torticollis may be caused by a fetus being in an unusual position in the uterus. It may also be caused by the use of forceps or vacuum devices during delivery.
These situations can put pressure on the sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM), a rope-like muscle that runs on either side of the neck, from the ears to the collarbone.
Additional pressure on one side of the SCM can cause the muscle to tighten, making it difficult to turn the neck and head.
While most cases of infant torticollis are not preventable, some cases may be caused by medical negligence. If a health care provider fails to diagnose infant torticollis, treatment can be delayed, potentially worsening symptoms. Additionally, a doctor’s improper use of delivery-assistance tools can be the direct cause of infant torticollis.
Infant Torticollis Symptoms
The most common sign of infant torticollis is difficulty turning the head and neck. Otherwise, babies with torticollis do not usually act any differently than babies without the condition.
Symptoms of infant torticollis in babies include:
- Exerting extra effort to turn their head to see
- Preferring to look at things over their shoulder instead of turning to follow with the eyes
- Showing signs of frustration when they’re unable to turn their head
- Tilting the head in one direction
- Trouble with breastfeeding and/or preferring one breast during feeding
Additionally, in some cases of infant torticollis, a baby may develop a flat head on one side from lying down in one direction. Lumps or bumps in the neck may also develop due to tightness in the muscles.
The right side is affected in about 75% of infant torticollis cases.
Diagnosing Infant Torticollis
Infant torticollis is diagnosed by examining how far a baby can turn its head. A comprehensive physical exam and examining the child’s full medical history will help to diagnose the condition. If a skeletal abnormality is suspected to be the cause of infant torticollis, an X-ray or MRI may be performed.
Some questions that may be asked to diagnose infant torticollis include:
- What is the age of the infant?
- When did the symptoms begin?
- Was there any trauma to the head or neck?
- Is there any sign of fever or infection?
- Were there any past surgeries in the head or neck?
Physical and neurological exams may also be performed to determine the type of infant torticollis your child may have.
These exams may include:
- Checking range of motion in the head and neck
- Examining the SCM muscle in the neck to see if there are any lumps
- Looking for any asymmetry or unevenness of the face and head
- Observing how the hips rotate to check for signs of hip dysplasia
It is also possible that a health care provider will call for additional imaging tests, such as ultrasounds. These tests can look for abnormalities in the spine that could be very serious to your child’s health.
Complications From Infant Torticollis
Infant torticollis usually resolves within a matter of months when it is treated properly. However, untreated tightness in the neck can lead to problems with eye gaze, head shape abnormalities, and decreased ability to turn the head.
A more rare complication of infant torticollis is difficulty with balance.
Infant Torticollis Treatment Options
Infant torticollis tends to respond well to physical therapy. Physical therapy for the condition may include neck stretching exercises designed to help strengthen the weaker side of a baby’s neck to straighten and loosen muscles.
Stretching exercises to treat infant torticollis usually start when a baby is 3 to 6 months old and can even be done at home. The condition usually gets better through this type of therapy in combination with sleep position changes and/or corrective helmets.
It can take up to 6 months or more for infant torticollis to go away entirely, however, sometimes, it does not improve with therapy. In these cases, surgery to release and loosen the muscles may be recommended.
Compensation for Infant Torticollis Related to Medical Negligence
In some cases, infant torticollis is caused by medical negligence during delivery. It can also be worsened by a medical professional’s failure to diagnose the condition in a timely manner. If you believe your child’s infant torticollis was caused by negligence, you may be able to take legal action.
To learn if you may be entitled to financial compensation to help pay for your child’s costs of care, contact the Birth Injury Justice Center. Our experienced team of Patient Advocates will listen to your story and provide you with a free legal case review.