Cervical Dystonia

What is cervical dystonia?

Cervical dystonia is a neurological disorder. With it, the muscles in your neck abnormally contract. It causes 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 sign is shortened, or contracted, neck muscles. 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. They also will want to know about any health problems or disorders. Your doctor may want to do some tests to see how your muscles work. This can detect the underlying cause. 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. However, it does not lower your expected life span. Some people may experience lengths of time without any symptoms (remission). There is a small chance of getting dystonias in other parts of your body.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • My mother had cervical dystonia? Am I at risk of getting it? Can I pass it to my children?
  • 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?