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What is Spasmodic Torticollis?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Spasmodic torticollis is a type of neurological disorder in which the neck muscles contract involuntarily, causing the head to jerk or tilt. Many factors can cause spasmodic torticollis, including congenital defects, adverse drug reactions, and direct trauma to the head and neck. A person with the condition is likely to experience chronic pain and be unable to comfortably engage in daily activities, such as reading and driving. Depending on the cause and the severity of symptoms, a doctor may decide to prescribe medications, inject the affected muscle with botulinum toxin, or suggest corrective surgery.

Also called cervical dystonia, spasmodic torticollis involves contractions of one or more muscles in the neck. Muscles may tighten instantly and jerk the head to the side, or gradually become more and more constricted, leaving the head tilted forward, backward, or toward one shoulder. An individual with the condition is unable to move the neck back to its proper alignment without serious discomfort. It is common for a person to suffer from headaches and chronic pain that radiates through the shoulders and arms. Some people experience arm tremors, nausea, and fatigue as well.

A person can acquire spasmodic torticollis at any age, and the exact causes are often difficult to identify. Congenital torticollis is usually the result of a neck injury that occurs in the womb or during birth. Later in life, an individual may experience direct trauma, a severe infection, or side effects from certain antidepressant or antipsychotic drugs. Some people with the condition are found to have abnormally high levels of toxins in their blood, such as carbon monoxide and lead. In addition, a tumor in the brain or spinal column can lead to torticollis if it compresses important nerves in the area.

Spasmodic torticollis can usually be diagnosed after a careful physical examination. A doctor might conduct blood tests to check for toxins and infections. A computerized tomography scan can be performed to look for signs of trauma or possible tumors. Muscle relaxants, antibiotics, and pain relievers are often all that is needed to relieve symptoms. A doctor may decide to administer a botulinum toxin injection to effectively paralyze the affected muscle and prevent future contractions.

Surgery may be required if a malignant tumor is found. A team of skilled surgeons can extract the tumor, which tends to immediately relieve pressure on the nerves and muscles. Follow-up chemotherapy and radiation treatments may be needed if cancer returns or starts to spread. After any type of treatment for spasmodic torticollis, a patient should schedule regular checkups with his or her doctor to monitor health issues.

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