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Best Exercises for Torticollis in Adults (Wryneck)

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 19, 2020

Adult torticollis, also known as cervical dystonia or “wryneck,” is a condition where your neck muscles go into spasm and pull your head to one side. Torticollis is often painful and can provoke twitching, twisting, and other uncomfortable neck posture problems.

There are several exercises that you can try to reduce torticollis symptoms and prevent them from recurring as frequently.

Adult torticollis can have a wide variety of causes, from strokes to medication to injuries. Regardless of the cause, it is important to be careful when performing exercises for torticollis to avoid injuring your neck muscles.

Exercises to Help Adult Torticollis

Torticollis can make it difficult to perform everyday tasks or even turn your neck. In most cases, exercises and physical therapy for torticollis focus on relieving muscle tension and strengthening the muscles that help with posture. These exercises can help reduce pain and discomfort as well as help your head return to a neutral position.

Sensory Trick Training

The first exercise is a mental exercise to help relax stiff neck muscles. A unique aspect of any type of dystonia is how your muscles react to “sensory tricks.” These tricks involve using your senses to signal your muscles to release. With torticollis, many people find that touching their faces in a certain place helps the seized neck muscles release. While the exact reason this relaxes the neck is unknown, early studies suggest that it helps your brain focus on a different input than the seized muscles. The location of the touch is different for every person with torticollis.

For many people, simply imagining their sensory trick’s sensation is enough to help release their muscles. If you have identified a sensory trick, you can practice imagining that sensation to help relieve your torticollis without having to touch your face. 

Forward Head Pulls

This stretch can help release the muscles running up the back and sides of your neck. It is helpful if your torticollis pulls your head back or to the side.

Step 1: While standing next to a counter, place your right hand on the back of your head. Hold the edge of the counter with your left hand.

Step 2: Slowly turn your head about 45 degrees to the right and then look down. You should feel a stretch in your neck and shoulders.

Step 3: If you can, use your right arm to gently press down on your head to deepen the stretch. Hold for up to 40 seconds.

You can flip this exercise to stretch muscles on the other side of your neck.

Opposing Rotations

If your torticollis primarily involves a twist to one side, this exercise can help stretch and strengthen the muscles that oppose your seized muscles.  

Step 1: Stand straight and lace your fingers together behind your head. Extend your elbows outward.

Step 2: Slowly turn your head in the direction opposite your torticollis. Keep your shoulders and arms still. 

Step 3: When you feel a stretch in your neck, hold your position for thirty seconds, then release back to a neutral position. 

Repeat this three to five times a day. 

Once you feel comfortable doing this exercise on its own, you can add resistance to it. Lie on your side with your head on a pillow, with your torticollis causing you to look up. Gently turn your head towards the pillow and push your face into it, then hold this position for thirty seconds.

Sideways Head Pulls

If your torticollis pulls your ear towards your shoulder, this exercise can help those muscles release.

Step 1: Stand next to a counter so that your torticollis causes you to lean your head towards it. Hold the counter with your nearest hand.

Step 2: Place your other hand on top of your head.

Step 3: Lean your head away from the counter, aiming your other ear towards your shoulder. You should feel a gentle stretch. Use the hand on your head to deepen the stretch. Hold this position for up to forty seconds.  

Repeat this three to five times a day. 

Safety Considerations

The goal of torticollis exercises is to relieve pain, not cause it. If any torticollis exercise hurts or seems to make the condition worse, stop that exercise immediately. 

If your torticollis lasts more than a few days or seems to get worse, you should talk to your physician. Chronic torticollis may be the result of a serious injury or brain condition.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Duncan Foundation: “Cervical Dystonia.”

Journal of Neurology: “Sensory trick phenomenon in cervical dystonia: a functional MRI study.”

Pathak, M., Frei, K., & Truong, D. The Spasmodic Torticollis Handbook, Demos Medical Publishing, 2003.

Physical Therapy: “Cervical Dystonia: Disease Profile and Clinical Management.”

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