These guidelines have been produced to guide clinical decision making for the medical, nursing and allied health staff of Perth Children’s Hospital. They are not strict protocols, and they do not replace the judgement of a senior clinician. Clinical common-sense should be applied at all times. These clinical guidelines should never be relied on as a substitute for proper assessment with respect to the particular circumstances of each case and the needs of each patient. Clinicians should also consider the local skill level available and their local area policies before following any guideline. 

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To guide staff with the assessment and management of torticollis.


  • The term torticollis (or wry neck), from the Latin for ‘twisted neck’, refers to a characteristics position where the head is held tipped to one side with the chin rotated toward the other.
  • It is a physical sign, not a condition, and can be caused by a wide range of problems.
Can be divided into 2 groups:

1. Torticollis present at birth or neonatal period

Muscular torticollis

  • Due to fibrosis and shortening of one of the sternocleidomastoid muscles, secondary to either abnormal intrauterine positioning of the head or birth trauma
  • In birth trauma, bleeding into the body of the muscle causes a  which can be seen and felt (sternomastoid 'tumour') which undergoes fibrosis and shortening, resulting in the typical head position
  • Treatment usually involves physiotherapy with gentle passive stretching exercises and positioning of the baby in their cot to encourage looking toward the affected side
  • Rarely surgical release is necessary to prevent secondary plagiocephaly
  • Postural torticollis occurs when the infant favours turning to one side. There is usually no sternomastoid tightness and full passive range of movement. Usually responds to encouraging baby to turn the opposite side.

Congenital vertebral abnormalities

  • In cases where birth trauma was unlikely and no sternomastoid mass can be felt, cervical spine X-Rays (AP and lateral) should be done to look for bony abnormalities before any manipulation is done

2. Torticollis in a previously unaffected child

  • Most cases are benign caused by  minor muscle trauma, or inflammation and spasm secondary to a nearby inflammatory process
  • Trauma may have been so minor that a particular event may not be recalled.  More significant trauma may result in subluxation, dislocation or fracture of cervical vertebrae, or fracture of a clavicle 
  • If history of significant trauma, immobilise in C-spine hard collar and refer to cervical spine trauma
  • Any inflammatory process in the area can cause torticollis, including upper respiratory tract infection, cervical lymphadenitis, dental abscess, retropharyngeal abscess, or upper lobe pneumonia
  • Dystonic drug reactions may sometimes present as torticollis
  • An uncommon, but serious cause of torticollis is a tumour of the posterior fossa or spinal cord – perform a full neurological examination.



  • If infective or inflammatory thought to be unlikely or if their is a history of trauma, cervical spine X-Rays should be taken
  • A full neurological examination including ophthalmological examination should be performed.


  • Muscular torticollis in infants can be managed with physiotherapy
  • Where minor trauma or muscular spasm is thought to be the cause, the patient can be treated symptomatically (analgesic and anti-inflammatory –  e.g. Ibuprofen) and followed up by GP
  • Infection should be treated with appropriate antibiotics if thought to be bacterial +/- referral to specialist team (e.g. ENT)
  • If no cause found, treat symptomatically, but will require close follow up.


  1. Acquired torticollis in children Charles G Macias, MD, MPHVanthaya Gan, MD. Accessed at
  2. Torticollis.Tomczak KK, Rosman NP J Child Neurol. 2013 Mar;28(3):365-78. Epub 2012 Dec 26. 
  3. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics: 20th Edition Robert M. Kliegman, Bonita M.D. Stanton, Joseph St. Geme, Nina F Schor Publisher: Elsevier 

Endorsed by:  Co-Director, Surgical Services  Date:  Oct 2021

 Review date:   Oct 2024

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