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Acute Torticollis

  • Author: Kevin Tao, MD; Chief Editor: Robert E O'Connor, MD, MPH  more...
Updated: Oct 15, 2015


Emergent management of torticollis can pose a challenge to the emergency physician owing to the fact that the condition can be acute or chronic, congenital or acquired, and idiopathic or secondary to trauma or disease. Moreover, the onset of torticollis can occur at any age.

In addition, laboratory studies are not particularly helpful and are dependent on underlying disorder, although they are useful if infection is suspected.

Prehospital care

In prehospital treatment of acute torticollis, ensure a patent airway and perform cervical spine immobilization/precautions for patients with a history of trauma.


Imaging Studies

Plain cervical radiographs, computed tomography (CT) scans, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the cervical spine may be useful to evaluate for bony trauma, suspected C1-C2 subluxation, congenital bony abnormalities, or osteomyelitis. (See the image below.)[1]

Soft-tissue neck radiograph demonstrates retrophar Soft-tissue neck radiograph demonstrates retropharyngeal abscess appearing as torticollis.

Employing CT scanning or MRI of the neck may be useful for evaluation of suspected abscesses, deep space infections, or masses, while using either of these modalities to image the brain may be useful to exclude suspected tumors.[2]


Other Diagnostic Considerations

Emergency department physicians should not diagnose idiopathic spasmodic torticollis if the patient has acute torticollis; consider other causes.

Unusual cervical disk herniation or bony subluxation, on occasion, causes acute wryneck or torticollis.

Emergent diagnoses of retropharyngeal abscess, epiglottitis, and spinal epidural abscesses and hematomas should always be considered.[3, 4] Pediatric patients should have a complete eye examination.[5]


Emergency Department Care

Patients with acute traumatic torticollis should have immediate cervical spine immobilization before further evaluation. Patients with respiratory compromise, stridor, or drooling should have emergent evaluation and management.

Emergent diagnoses of retropharyngeal abscess, epiglottitis, and spinal epidural hematomas should always be considered.

Treatment of torticollis is generally supportive and includes analgesics, benzodiazepines, anticholinergics, heat, massage, and stretching exercises. Most cases of torticollis, including congenital muscular torticollis resolve spontaneously.

Reversible causes of torticollis should be identified and treated accordingly. Appropriate antibiotics should be given for infectious causes. Drug-induced torticollis is treated with diphenhydramine, benztropine, or benzodiazepines.

Treatment of atlantoaxial subluxation depends on severity and duration and ranges from simple analgesia to cervical traction and immobilization to surgery.[6, 7] Antireflux therapy is indicated for children with Sandifer syndrome.


Consultations and Follow-Up

Emergent specialist consultation is necessary for life-threatening diagnoses, including retropharyngeal abscess, epiglottitis, spinal epidural abscesses and hematomas, severe cervical fractures, and dislocations.

Appropriate follow-up depends on the underlying disease process. Infants with congenital muscular torticollis should be monitored at 2- to 4-week intervals. Refer most patients with prolonged symptoms suggestive of idiopathic spasmodic torticollis to a neurologist for follow-up. Fixed deformities in children may require surgical referral.



Drugs of choice for treatment of torticollis include analgesics (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs], acetaminophen, opiates), benzodiazepines, anticholinergics, and local intramuscular injections of botulinum toxin (BOTOX®). Emergency physicians, as standard practice, do not administer BOTOX® injections; tertiary referral centers perform most injections.[8, 9, 10]

Drugs of choice for dystonic reactions secondary to medication include diphenhydramine, benztropine, and benzodiazepines.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Kevin Tao, MD Attending Physician, Emergency Department, MacNeal Hospital

Kevin Tao, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Christopher M McStay, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, New York University School of Medicine, Bellevue Hospital Center

Christopher M McStay, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians, Wilderness Medical Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

J Stephen Huff, MD, FACEP Professor of Emergency Medicine and Neurology, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Virginia School of Medicine

J Stephen Huff, MD, FACEP is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Neurology, American College of Emergency Physicians, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Chief Editor

Robert E O'Connor, MD, MPH Professor and Chair, Department of Emergency Medicine, University of Virginia Health System

Robert E O'Connor, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Association for Physician Leadership, American Heart Association, Medical Society of Delaware, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine, Wilderness Medical Society, American Medical Association, National Association of EMS Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Jeffrey Glenn Bowman, MD, MS Consulting Staff, Highfield MRI

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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  2. Kim JW, Kim SH, Yim SY. Quantitative analysis of magnetic resonance imaging of the neck and its usefulness in management of congenital muscular torticollis. Ann Rehabil Med. 2015 Apr. 39 (2):294-302. [Medline].

  3. Hasegawa J, Tateda M, Hidaka H, Sagai S, Nakanome A, Katagiri K. Retropharyngeal abscess complicated with torticollis: case report and review of the literature. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2007 Sep. 213(1):99-104. [Medline].

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  8. Costa J, Espirito-Santo C, Borges A, et al. Botulinum toxin type B for cervical dystonia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2005 Jan 25. CD004315. [Medline].

  9. Denislic M, Pirtosek Z, Vodusek DB, Zidar J, Meh D. Botulinum toxin in the treatment of neurological disorders. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1994 Mar 9. 710:76-87. [Medline].

  10. Truong D, Duane DD, Jankovic J, Singer C, Seeberger LC, Comella CL, et al. Efficacy and safety of botulinum type A toxin (Dysport) in cervical dystonia: results of the first US randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Mov Disord. 2005 Jul. 20(7):783-91. [Medline].

Soft-tissue neck radiograph demonstrates retropharyngeal abscess appearing as torticollis.
A 69-year-old woman presents with torticollis and a fever.
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