What are your legal options if your child is born with torticollis?
Giving birth is exhausting, thrilling, and terrifying. You entrust a team of medical professionals with the important task of bringing your child into the world safely. But medical professionals are human and sometimes they make mistakes.
A small percentage of babies suffer torticollis as a result of trauma that occurs at birth. Although the condition is treatable and not life-threatening, it can be mentally and financially stressful for the parents.
What is torticollis?
Torticollis (also called “twisted neck” or “wry neck”) is a condition in which a person holds their head tilted at an odd angle (usually a right or left tilt) or has difficulty turning their head.
There are two types of torticollis:
- Acquired torticollis is a condition that can develop at any time.
- Congenital torticollis is a condition that’s present at birth.
Acquired torticollis and congenital torticollis have different causes.
Let’s take a closer look.
Common causes of torticollis
Acquired torticollis is typically caused by:
- Irritation to the cervical ligaments from a viral infection
- Vigorous movement
- Sleeping in an awkward position
- Neck muscle injury at birth
- Burn injury
- Any injury that causes heavy scarring and skin or muscle shrinkage
- Neck muscle spasm
- Herniated disk
- Viral or bacterial infection
The causes of congenital torticollis, on the other hand, aren’t fully understood. However, medical experts believe congenital torticollis occurs when the muscle that runs along each side of the neck (the sternocleidomastoid muscle) becomes short and tight.
There are a few reasons this may occur:
- Abnormal positioning in the uterus (breech position, for example)
- Abnormal development of the sternocleidomastoid muscle
- Trauma or damage to the sternocleidomastoid muscle during birth
In far less common cases, congenital torticollis may occur as a symptom of another underlying condition, including:
- Congenital bony abnormalities
- Congenital webs of skin running along the side of the neck
- Klippel-Feil syndrome (a rare birth defect that causes some of the neck vertebrae to fuse together)
- Achondroplasia (a bone growth disorder)
- Multiple epiphyseal dysplasia (a disease that affects the development of bone and cartilage in the long bones of the arms and legs)
- Morquio’s syndrome (an inherited metabolic disorder that prevents the body from breaking down sugar molecules)
How common is torticollis?
It’s estimated that roughly 90% of people will exhibit at least 1 episode of acquired torticollis throughout their lifetime.
On the other hand, the estimated incidence of congenital torticollis is fewer than 1% of all live births.
More specifically, the incidence of congenital torticollis is as low as 0.3% in uncomplicated deliveries and as high as 1.8% in patients with breech presentation. Congenital torticollis is also more common among first-born children.
Proving medical negligence during childbirth
It’s not always easy to determine the cause of your child’s torticollis. In some cases, the condition is genetic and has nothing to do with the actions or inactions of your healthcare team during labor and delivery.
However, if your child’s condition was caused by trauma experienced during labor and delivery (for example, your doctor failed to perform a timely cesarean section delivery or placed undue pressure on your baby’s sternocleidomastoid muscle) you may be able to recover damages by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Medical malpractice occurs when a licensed healthcare professional's negligent act or omission causes an injury to a patient.
To establish a medical malpractice claim, you need to prove the following 2 elements:
- The healthcare professional failed to exercise the degree of care and skill expected of a reasonable healthcare professional in the same position, and
- Such failure was the proximate cause of your child’s injury.
Treatment of torticollis
Congenital torticollis can usually be treated by completing exercises designed to stretch the sternocleidomastoid muscle. Stretching exercises generally include turning the baby's neck side to side so that the chin touches each shoulder, and gently tilting the head to bring the ear on the unaffected side down to the shoulder.
Additionally, there are some small steps you can take as a parent to help your child overcome torticollis:
- Place toys where your baby must turn their head to see them
- Carry your baby so they must look away from the constricted side
- Position the changing table so the baby must look away from the constricted side to see you
If the above exercises don’t work, you may need to consider surgery.
Surgery is typically not done until your child reaches preschool age. The common surgical procedure will lengthen your child’s sternocleidomastoid muscle. Although it may sound intimidating, the surgery is relatively simple and your child can generally go home the same day.
Contact a lawyer for your child’s torticollis birth injury
If your child developed torticollis as a result of a medical error during birth, you may be able to receive financial compensation to pay for the treatment.