Acquired Torticollis

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  • See also

    Cervical spine assessment  

    Febrile child

    Congenital torticollis

    Key Points

    1.  If torticollis occurs in setting of trauma, manage as Cervical spine assessment
    2.  If the child has signs of fever, infection or abnormal neurology, appropriate imaging should be performed to establish a cause
    3.  Most children will have a muscular torticollis and can be managed with simple analgesia 


      Torticollis (twisted neck), is a non-specific sign with a large spectrum of aetiologies

      Causes of acquired torticollis include:

      • Muscle spasm (wry neck)
      • Trauma: fracture/dislocation, spinal haematoma
      • Atlantoaxial rotary subluxation/fixation
      • Infection: head and neck, spine, CNS or upper lobe chest
      • Inflammation: juvenile idiopathic arthritis
      • Neoplasm: CNS (posterior fossa) and bone tumours
      • Dystonic syndromes (idiopathic spasmodic torticollis, drug reactions)
      • Ocular dysfunction
      • Benign paroxysmal torticollis  


      Red flag features in Red


      • Time course: uncomplicated acute torticollis should resolve within 7-10 days
      • History of awkward position eg recent flight, different sleeping arrangement
      • History of trauma
      • Infective symptoms: fever (see Febrile child), increased drooling, sore throat, dysphagia
      • Neurological symptoms: headache, strabismus, diplopia, photophobia, ataxia 
      • Medications associated with acute dystonic reactions e.g. metoclopramide


      • Midline tenderness, general neck palpation and attempt active ROM 
      • Location of tenderness may assist with diagnosis, however deep pathology (eg infection) may have no external signs
      • Neurologic examination
      • Ophthalmologic examination
      • ENT examination including dentition and lymph nodes 
      • Chest examination 




      • Cervical Spine X-ray: particularly if there is cervical spine tenderness, severe pain, persistent symptoms (≥1 week) or the child has a risk of atlantoaxial instability (eg Down syndrome, Morquio syndrome, Larsen syndrome, Marfan syndrome). See Cervical spine assessment
      • CT neck and/or the brain if:
        • associated neurological symptoms are present
        • severe pain is not alleviated by analgesia or relaxants
        • bone anomaly is suspected clinically or abnormal cervical xray
        • there is suspicion of a retropharyngeal abscess

      Depending on the presentation, consultation with, general medicine, orthopaedics, ENT, ophthalmology or neurology will help with decisions about imaging


      For most children, heat pack, massage and basic analgesia is appropriate treatment

      Diazepam can be effective with some cases of spasm of the sternocleidomastoid

      Management depends on suspected cause

      • Stabilisation may be required
      • Infectious cause: appropriate antibiotic therapy (see Antibiotics)
      • Refer to ENT if a retropharyngeal or parapharyngeal abscess is suspected
      • Atlantoaxial rotatory fixation: rest, use of a soft collar
      • Injury or congenital bony cause: refer to orthopaedics
      • Dystonic reactions: benztropine 

      Consider consultation with local paediatric team when 

      • Trauma cases
      • Deep space infection of the neck suspected
      • Cause unknown or prolonged symptoms

      Consider transfer when

      Child requires care beyond the comfort level of the local provider 

      For emergency advice and paediatric or neonatal ICU transfers, see Retrieval Services.

      Consider discharge when

      • No features present on history or examination requiring further investigation 
      • Appropriate follow up arranged: GP/paediatric follow up is advisable in children discharged from ED with a diagnosis of torticollis

      Last updated June 2020

    4. Reference List

      1. GG&C Paediatric Guidelines: Torticollis in children (viewed May 2019).
      2. Haque S; Bilal Shafi BB; Kaleem M. Imaging of torticollis in children. [Review] Radiographics. 32(2):557-71, 2012 Mar-Apr. 
      3. Per H; Canpolat M; Tumturk A; Gumus H; Gokoglu A; Yikilmaz A; Ozmen S; Kacar Bayram A; Poyrazoglu HG; Kumandas S; Kurtsoy A. Different etiologies of acquired torticollis in childhood. Childs Nervous System. 30(3):431-40, 2014 Mar. 
      4. Perth Children’s guideline: Torticollis (viewed May 2019).
      5. Starc M; Norbedo S; Tubaro M; Ronfani L; Bassanese G; Barbi E. Red Flags in Torticollis: A Historical Cohort Study. Pediatric Emergency Care. 34(7):463-466, 2018
      6. Starship Spinal Service  (viewed May 2019).
      7. Uptodate acquired torticollis in children (viewed December 2018).