“My other daughter had the same problem but she outgrew it on her own,” said the mother standing in front of me. Oh no, she didn’t.
The condition in question is called torticollis. This is seen in newborns where we notice that the baby always keeps their head turned to one side. It is traditionally treated as a neck problem but it is far from just that. Torticollis is, in fact, a tightness throughout one whole side of the body. What we see visually is that the infant keeps their head turned to one side, but the head is really just the last pearl on the string. The tightness begins way down in the hip and pelvis (and sometimes all the way down to the foot), and involves the whole side of the trunk, up into the shoulder, and then into the head and neck.
The traditional way of treating torticollis, when you see it as an isolated neck problem, is to force the head to the other side. Not only is this a horrible experience for caregivers and baby, it doesn’t address the root problem. Treating torticollis involves releasing the tightness throughout the body. When this approach is taken, the neck itself usually requires minimal intervention.
“But my other daughter started turning her head to the other side eventually and now she’s just fine,” said the mother. Oh no, she’s not.
How do I know this? I know this with absolute certainty because I’ve seen it too often. Whether an infant has only had the neck addressed or has not had the torticollis treated at all, the underlying issue is still there. They just figure out how to work around it. Some babies will eventually figure out how to cheat and will get their head around to the other side. The problem is they have developed compensatory movement patterns to do so. And the tightness is STILL THERE.
So who cares? As long as they can turn their head to both sides then they’re just fine right? Well, they may be for now but they will eventually pay. When there is persistent tightness in one area of the body, other parts have to compensate. This puts undue strain in certain areas and at some point some part of the system will fail.
Case in point – an 11 year-old hockey goalie I treated for a pulled thigh muscle. First of all, kids of that age shouldn’t really be pulling muscles just playing without some sort of trauma happening. So what happened to him? When I examined him I picked up right away on significant tightness through his entire left side, but particularly the hip and pelvis. It was readily apparent that this was the underlying cause of his injury. When I asked him to turn his head to the left and the tightness worsened I knew exactly what I was dealing with.
“Did he perchance have torticollis as an infant?” I asked mom. She looked at me like I was some sort of circus fortuneteller and, once she picked her jaw up off the floor, asked me how I knew that. I knew it because I am so very familiar with this pattern of tightness. It had been there since infancy but he had very cleverly figured out how to work around it until now. With the repetitive nature of the movements he was doing (he started playing competitive hockey this year and is on the ice four to five times a week) it took its toll.
The point is that the entire issue has to be addressed holistically from head to toe, literally. If it is not, and believe me that is unfortunately almost always the case, then the person will pay somewhere down the road. It could be when they start playing competitive hockey at 11, when they go into heavy construction work at 25, or at 50 after many years of sitting at a computer. But rear its ugly head it will, without fail. The problem is that when it does, virtually no one will link it back to the torticollis they had as an infant. Why? Because healthcare practitioners in general don’t see enough of the big picture. When you miss the inter-connectedness of the entire body you usually miss the underlying cause of the problem in front of you.
The moral of the story is simple. If you child had torticollis as an infant that was not treated holistically, then their body is not moving optimally with true freedom. This will have consequences down the road. I guarantee it. The good news is that it’s totally treatable! And obviously it’s best to treat it BEFORE problems occur. So this mom will be bringing in her older daughter soon to have the issue truly addressed. Her future self will be thankful.