Cervical Dystonia

What is cervical dystonia?

Cervical dystonia is a neurological disorder that causes the muscles in your neck to abnormally contract. This muscle contraction can cause your head to lean or twist to one side. Your chin may pull up, down, forward, or backward. Your shoulder also can contort up.

The disorder also is known as spasmodic torticollis (ST). It can cause severe pain and discomfort. It often begins slowly, gets worse, and then stabilizes.

Symptoms of cervical dystonia

The main symptom is involuntary muscle contractions in your neck. Other symptoms include:

  • burning pain in your neck and shoulders
  • severe headaches
  • spasms and/or tremors

What causes cervical dystonia?

Primary cervical dystonia begins as a problem in your basal ganglia. This is the part of your brain that sends messages to start muscle movement. Secondary cervical dystonia occurs as a result of a condition. This could be stroke, traumatic brain injury, or Parkinson’s disease. Nerve damage from certain drug use is another possible cause.

How is cervical dystonia diagnosed?

Your doctor can review your symptoms and perform a physical exam. He or she also will want to know about any health problems or disorders you may have. Your doctor may want to do some tests to see how your muscles work. These tests can detect the underlying cause of your muscle contractions. Cervical dystonia can resemble stiff neck, an acute pain, or spasm that goes away.

Can cervical dystonia be prevented or avoided?

Cervical dystonia may run in families. However, there are no tests to detect mutated genes for the disorder. Women are more likely to get it than men. It usually affects people between 40 and 60 years of age.

Cervical dystonia treatment

There are several treatment options for cervical dystonia. Medicines can help your neck muscles relax and reduce spasms. These include muscle relaxers and certain Parkinson’s medicines. Injections also can help with this.

Your doctor may recommend physical therapy. This includes exercises to stretch and strengthen your muscles. Physical therapy can reduce pain and improve neck posture and movement. Massage and practices to reduce stress also can help with pain and discomfort. Some people use neck or head braces for support.

Severe cases may require surgery. Selective denervation surgery cuts the nerves to the affected muscles. Deep brain stimulation surgery uses electrical pulses to correct your nerves.

Living with cervical dystonia

Cervical dystonia is a lifelong disorder. There is no cure. However, it does not lower your expected life span. Some people may experience lengths of time without any symptoms (remission). If your cervical dystonia causes you pain, work with your doctor to help control it.

There is a small chance of getting dystonia in other parts of your body. It can affect muscles that you can voluntarily control (not your heart, for example).

Try to minimize stress in your life. Even though stress does not cause dystonia, your symptoms may be worse when you are feeling stressed.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • My mother had cervical dystonia? Am I at risk of getting it? Can I pass it to my children?
  • Does cervical dystonia come on slowly or happen suddenly?
  • How can physical therapy help cervical dystonia?
  • What are the side effects of medicines that treat cervical dystonia?
  • Will I need surgery to treat this condition? If so, what are the side effects?