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Congenital torticollis is a condition in which the sternocleidomastoid is tight on one side, leading a baby to have their head twisted to one side all the time. With the right exercises, the condition usually resolves quickly.

Has your baby just been diagnosed with torticollis, or do you think you have noticed the tell-tale signs of this condition? It's important to know that the condition isn't usually painful and that it most often resolves with the help of exercises and changes in positioning. What else do parents need to know about wryneck in babies?

What Is Torticollis?

Torticollis, also called wryneck colloquially, means "twisted neck" in Latin — and that's basically exactly what it is. Torticollis can roughly be divided into two main categories: acquired and congenital. Torticollis that devlops later in life has a really wide variety of causes, from tumors and infections to certain medications and underlying medical conditions. If torticollis is present at birth or becomes apparent shortly thereafter, it's called congenital torticollis. 

In congenital torticollis, a baby's neck will be twisted in one position, and their chin in the opposite direction. While torticollis can look disturbing, affected babies don't tend to experience pain from this condition. The condition affects boys and girls equally, and about one in 250 babies will experience it.

A tight sternocleidomastoid muscle (the muscle that connects the collarbone and breastbone to the skull) is almost always the cause of congenital tortocollis. 

Though experts aren't fully certain what lies behind that, they have a very good idea about the risk factors. It is known that a shortened sternocleidomastoid muscle can occur as a result of strange positioning in utero or because of a difficult birth, for instance. Bleeding and scarring can trigger a shortening of the relevant muscle. Breech babies and those who required forceps to be born are more likely to develop torticollis, and 10 to 20 percent of those affected also have hip dysplasia.

More rarely, abnormalities in the neck bones, known as Klippel-Feil syndrome, can be the culprit in cases of congenital torticollis. The condition can also be hereditary or the result of uncommon underlying conditions including tumors of the brain or spinal cord. Because of torticollis, a signifcant number of those affected also develop plagiocephaly, a condition in which the baby's head has a flat spot or is misshapen — in this case due to laying in the same position all the time.

Torticollis: The Tell-Tale Signs

Severe torticollis is quite noticeable: if you don't notice that your baby's neck is titled to one side with the chin pointing to the other side, your pediatrician or the staff at your hospital will. A bump on one side of the neck is another tell-tale sign, along with limited mobility of the neck. Whether a baby is born with torticollis or develops it over time, it's almost always diagnosed within the first two months of life.

If you suspect your baby may have torticollis, you may notice:

  • Your baby tilts their head to one side.
  • Your baby strongly prefers to breastfeed on one particular side, if breastfed.
  • Your baby cries when attempting to turn their head to the problematic side.
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