Infant Cervical Dystonia

Infant cervical dystonia, or spasmodic torticollis, is a neurological medical condition in which a baby’s neck muscles snaps back and contracts involuntary. When the neck snaps, it results in the baby’s head moving to one side and forwards and backwards, causing mild to intense pain. Cervical dystonia can happen at any age, but when it occurs in infants, it’s typically associated with some type of birth trauma. 

Symptoms of Infant Cervical Dystonia

Including the neck snapping back and the head moving back and forward, infants with cervical dystonia may also exhibit the following symptoms:

  • The chin pulling straight up, down, or towards the shoulder
  • One ear leaning towards the shoulder on the same side
  • Jerking head motion
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Causes and Risk Factors

In some cases, doctors are unsure what causes cervical dystonia. However, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NIH), infant cervical dystonia has been linked to birth injuries that lead to hypoxia and neonatal brain hemorrhaging.

Shoulder dystocia, for example, occurs when an infant’s shoulders are stuck against the mother’s pelvic bone during labor and delivery. If the baby stays lodged for too long, there is a heightened risk of hypoxia. If physicians pull too roughly in attempt to get the baby out quickly, they may end up causing injuries to the infant’s head and neck, which can also lead to cervical dystonia.

Brachial plexus injuries have also been associated with infant cervical dystonia. Per the United Brachial Plexus Network (UBPN), spasmodic torticollis is often associated with brachial plexus injuries, which involve damage to the brachial plexus, a network of nerves that run from the shoulders, arms, and arm pits.

In addition, certain infections, trauma, stroke, and medications such as anti-nausea drugs and antipsychotic drugs have been linked with cervical dystonia.

Complications of Infant Cervical Dystocia

Unfortunately, infants with cervical dystocia often experience chronic pain that can range from mild to severe. In some cases, the pain may spread throughout the body. Long-term complications may result in depression.

Treatment Options

Although there is no cure for infant cervical dystonia, there are a number of treatment options that help babies live more comfortably, including:

  • Medications, such as muscle relaxants and pain relievers
  • Therapy, which may help ease symptoms through strength training exercises, flexibility techniques, and stress management
  • Neck braces
  • Surgical procedures, such as selective denervation surgery, which incude cutting the nerves and muscles that are creating the dystonia
  • Deep brain stimulation, in which a wire is placed into the part of the brain responsible for controlling movement

A few home remedies that may help include ensuring that the baby is getting adequate rest, heating packs on the neck, and sensory touching.

Long-Term Outlook

Many infants will cervical dystonia will face developmental delays, even with the help of treatment. However, the extent of the delays will depend on the severity of the disorder, as well as the type of support received while growing up. Depression is a major concern as children with cervical dystonia are often limited in certain physical activities. It’s important to provide strong emotional support. In some cases, counseling and therapy sessions help.

According to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF), the brain not only controls movement, but moods and behavior as well, making those with cervical dystonia at a heightened risk for anxiety and depression.