Preventing Torticollis (wry neck)

by Nancy Maruyama, R.N.

Since 1994, the "Back to Sleep" national campaign to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death sydrome has dramatically decreased the number of infant deaths from SIDS. However, certain neck positional problems have increased. One of these is torticollis (wry neck).

Some babies develop torticollis, which is a shortening or tightening of the neck muscle, by sppending too much time with their neck turned in one direction. To prevent this, try to alternate which way the baby's head is turned when you put him to sleep. If he is developing a preference to tilt his head in one direction, try using toys to get him to turn his head the other direction.

There are treatments for torticollis. If you notice that your baby is tilting his head in one direction, consult your doctor for advice. Some methods of treatment include neck exercises to do with the baby and physical therapy.

What are the symptoms?

Many parents, especially first-time parents, don't realize that their child is having a problem. Often torticollis is mistaken for the normal "floppy" neck of a newborn. Generally you will see the "tilt" associated with torticollis the in the first week to 10 days of life. If, as the baby gets older it becomes more apparent instead of less apparent, contact your doctor.

If your child is affected by CMT (congenital muscular torticollis) there will be a tightening of the Sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM) on one side of the neck. Because the SCM controls both the tilt and rotation (ability to look from side to side) a child with torticollis will tilt one way and look towards the opposite side.

Most times, you will notice that whenever your baby sleeps, his/her head will be in the same position.

Why is torticollis becoming so common?

Babies are sleeping on their backs now and the muscles in the neck and upper back aren't being stretched out as they were with tummy sleeping.

If you suspect your child may have torticollis or a tightening of the neck muscles, tummy time WHILE AWAKE, is vital to their recovery. Try to put your baby on their tummy whenever they are awake -- at least an hour a day.

How is torticollis treated?

Congenital Muscular Torticollis (CMT) is primarily treated with Physical Therapy (PT). In fact, PT is vital to complete recovery. Some parents have supplemented their PT with chiropractic and have been pleased with the results.

A child who doesn't respond to conventional therapy may need surgery. In our experience, surgery is used when Range of Motion (ROM) does not improve. After surgery there is often still the problem of lateral tilt to deal with so therapy is still needed. Fortunately surgery is very rare and most children respond to PT.

SIDS of Illinois, Inc.

Copyright © Nancy Maruyama. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.