Congenital Muscular Torticollis

Key Points:


Congenital muscular torticollis (CMT) is the most common cause of torticollis in the infant and young child. The median age at presentation is 2 months. The characteristic head tilt seen in this pathology is caused by abnormal contracture of the sternocleidomastoid muscle. With contracture of the muscle, the head tilts toward the involved side with the chin rotated towards the opposite shoulder. Most often, this diagnosis is associated with breech or difficult deliveries, but it may occur in uncomplicated spontaneous vaginal delivery  or Cesarean delivery. The deformity is most often present on the right side and up to 20% of patients will also have developmental dysplasia of the hip (DDH).   Consideration should be given to screening patients with CMT for DDH with physical examination and imaging.


Overall, the estimated incidence of congenital muscular torticollis is <1% of all live births. The incidence may as be low as 0.3% in uncomplicated deliveries with vertex position or as high as 1.8% in patients with breech presentation.

Clinical Findings:

The typical head posture results from the contracted SCM: the ear on the side of contracture is tilted towards the ipsilateral shoulder while the chin is rotated toward the contralateral shoulder.   Occasionally a firm mass or knot may be palpated in the SCM, typically in a child less than 3 months of age.  Plagiocephally is commonly present on the side of the contracted SCM and is related to the contracture and the recommendation of supine sleep positioning for prevention of sudden infant death syndrome.  When viewed from above, a typical plagiocephaly deformity will demonstrate anterior displacement of the ear on the same side as the occipital flattening.  

Imaging Studies:

The diagnosis of congenital muscular torticollis is primarily clinical.  However, ultrasound may be a useful modality in the presence of a palpable mass. Radiographs of the cervical spine may be obtained to rule out any associated congenital abnormalities.   Every child with CMT does not need imaging, however they should be considered if the physical exam findings are not consistent with congenital muscular torticollis or if the deformity does not respond to conservative treatment.  MRI has been performed on some patients for research purposes. Findings include increased thickness of the SCM muscle (2-4x larger than the contralateral side) in younger patients whereas atrophy and fibrosis was seen in older patients.  MRI of the central nervous system can be considered in atypical torticollis or prior to surgical intervention if the deformity does not improve with conservative measures. 


The mainstay of treatment is nonoperative with manual stretching exercises, caregiver education, and environmental modifications. The primary technique of stretching the SCM involves rotating the chin towards the ipsilateral shoulder while tilting the head toward the contralateral shoulder.  The range of motion and cosmetic appearance is adequate in greater than 90% of patients following this treatment.  In patients with resistant pathology or who present after 1 year of age then a lengthening of the SCM muscle may be considered.  The ideal age to consider surgery is controversial with some authors advocating delaying until closer to school age.  


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Top Contributors:

Grant Hogue MD