Also known as “wryneck,” torticollis is a condition in which a child's head is tilted. It is typically caused by either a tightening of the muscles of the neck, flattening of the back of the head or a combination of the two. The condition often refers to tightness of a specific muscle which pulls the head sideways toward the shoulder, turns the face toward the opposite shoulder and brings the head forward on the chest. Habitually spending time in this position frequently causes other neck muscles to tighten.
Torticollis limits a child's ability to turn the head to see, hear and interact freely with their environment. Because of this, torticollis may lead to delayed cognitive development, delayed whole body awareness, weakness and difficulties with balance. Since the neurological component that directs development and balance is not impaired, children with torticollis may compensate for their head positioning and progress through their developmental stages asymmetrically. This asymmetry may cause spinal misalignment and uneven distribution of weight over the legs, leading to the development of orthopaedic problems.
Torticollis is also associated with a flattening of the back of the head, known as plagiocephaly. As the infant keeps the head turned to the same side, the constant pressure on the back of the head leads to flattening accompanied by a bulging on that side of the forehead. If unchecked, torticollis and plagiocephaly may contribute to perceptual problems and learning disabilities when children reach school-age.
Torticollis and plagiocephaly should be evaluated by a physician to determine the cause and whether treatment is required. If treatment is necessary, a referral will be made to physical therapy. A physical therapist should individually assess the needs of each child and provide treatment, home exercise and positioning suggestions.
The incidence of torticollis and plagiocephaly can be minimized by providing supervised, awake prone time (tummy time), encouraging babies to look equally in both directions and by minimizing the use of baby equipment (car seats, bouncy seats, swings, etc.).