Torticollis - Causes

Authored by Dr Louise Newson, 03 Jul 2016

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr John Cox, 03 Jul 2016

The cause of sudden-onset wry neck (acute torticollis) is often not known. It can happen in people with no previous neck symptoms. It is a common cause of neck pain in young people. There is usually no obvious injury.

However, it may be due to a minor sprain or irritation of a muscle or ligament in the neck. Some reasons for this include:

  • Sitting or sleeping in an unusual position without adequate neck support.
  • Poor posture when looking at a computer screen.
  • Carrying heavy unbalanced loads (for example, a briefcase or shopping bag).
  • Allowing certain muscles of the neck to be exposed to cold (sleeping in a draught).

Cervical dystonia

Cervical dystonia (also known as spasmodic torticollis) is a problem where abnormal movements develop in the muscles of the neck. It most often occurs in people over the age of 40 years.

You cannot control the contraction of the neck muscles which produce abnormal movements and postures of the neck and head. These can be either twisting (torticollis), being pulled forwards (antecollis), backwards (retrocollis), or sideways (laterocollis).

Cervical dystonia can range from being mild to severe. There is no cure. However, regular injections of botulinum toxin, which paralyse the affected muscles, are the most effective treatment.

Other less common causes

More rarely, torticollis in the neck occurs as a result of other conditions. These include:

  • Infections of your throat or upper airways. These can cause swelling in the lymph glands in your neck or infections in your skin and underlying tissues. The inflammation can trigger a spasm in your neck muscles.
  • Any abnormality or injury of your neck (cervical spine). For example, cervical spine tumours or blood vessel abnormalities.
  • As a side-effect of certain medicines - for example, phenothiazines.

Further reading and references

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