What Is Cervical Dystonia?

  • Nisa Fareed BSc in Biomedical Science, University of Warwick

Navigating the world of medical conditions can often feel overwhelming. Especially, when faced with unfamiliar terms like "cervical dystonia". Rest assured, we're here to shed light on this condition and provide you with a comprehensive understanding. Whether you've just been diagnosed or are seeking knowledge for a loved one, this article aims to provide clarity and empower you with the information you need to navigate the journey ahead.

As we delve deeper, we'll explore the intricacies of cervical dystonia, including its symptoms, underlying causes, diagnosis, and the range of treatment options available. Understanding these aspects will equip you with valuable insights into managing the condition effectively.


Cervical dystonia, also known as spasmodic torticollis, is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions in the neck, leading to abnormal postures and repetitive twisting movements. This condition falls under the umbrella of dystonia, a group of movement disorders that involve involuntary muscle contractions causing repetitive or twisting movements and abnormal postures. Cervical dystonia specifically affects the muscles responsible for controlling neck movement, leading to sustained or intermittent abnormal positions of the head1 .

Cervical dystonia's origin lies at the nexus of the brain's intricate pathways and the muscular symphony they govern. The basal ganglia's role in regulating motor control, coupled with the disruption of neurotransmitters like dopamine, forms the neurological backdrop of this condition. Simultaneously, the muscles engage in a discordant tug of war, resulting in head positions that defy conscious intent3

Signs & symptoms of cervical dystonia

Cervical dystonia's hallmark symptom is the abnormal positioning of the head and neck. This can manifest as various patterns, such as tilting, rotation, or pulling of the head to one side. These involuntary movements often result in pain, discomfort, and muscle spasms1, 2. Other symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal head postures: These can take on diverse forms, ranging from tilting to one side, rotating, or pulling the head forward or backward. These postures often defy the individual's conscious intentions, leading to an involuntary dance of the head that belies the body's normal mechanisms of control.
  • Muscle rigidity and spasms: The neck muscles, typically adept at facilitating fluid motion, undergo involuntary contractions that sabotage the harmonious interplay of movement. This muscular tension imparts a sense of stiffness and discomfort, further, compounded by the inability to achieve a balanced and relaxed neck posture.
  • Restricted range of motion: Individuals often experience a restricted range of motion, as if the cords that bind their neck's movement have been inexplicably tightened. This limitation imparts a sense of constraint and frustration, as even the simplest actions like turning the head or looking over the shoulder become a challenge.
  • Recurrent headaches: The sustained muscle contractions can trigger tension-type headaches, a throbbing reminder of the ongoing turmoil within. These headaches can be intensified by stress or prolonged muscle contractions, further, entwining the physical and emotional facets of the disorder.
  • Tenderness and soreness: Affected muscles may become tender to the touch, eliciting discomfort and soreness. This tactile dimension serves as a tangible reminder of the ongoing battle waged within the body's intricate muscular landscape.

Causes and risk factors

While the exact cause of cervical dystonia remains unclear, it is believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Certain genetic mutations may increase susceptibility to developing dystonia, and in some cases, the condition can run in families. Additionally, abnormalities in brain regions responsible for controlling movement may play a role1.

  • Genetic predisposition: In families where the condition appears to pass from one generation to the next, genetic mutations come into the spotlight as potential culprits. While the precise genetic mutations responsible for cervical dystonia remain elusive, ongoing research is gradually unravelling the genetic underpinnings of this disorder.
  • Brain abnormalities: The brain's choreography of movement relies on a delicate interplay of neurotransmitters, i.e., chemical messengers that relay signals between nerve cells. Dopamine, a key neurotransmitter, emerges as a central player. Fluctuations in dopamine levels disrupt the harmonious flow of neural communication within the basal ganglia, leading to involuntary contractions and spasms that hallmark cervical dystonia.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to certain environmental toxins, although rare, has been implicated as a potential trigger. Additionally, life events such as trauma, stress, or infections could serve as catalysts for the onset of symptoms in individuals with a genetic predisposition.


The path to diagnosing cervical dystonia weaves through a landscape of clinical expertise, detailed observation, and specialized assessments. Like skilled detectives, healthcare providers piece together clues embedded within symptoms and histories to uncover the underlying neurological symphony that orchestrates the disorder's unique manifestations.

  • Clinical assessment: The journey toward a cervical dystonia diagnosis often commences in the skilled hands of a neurologist or a movement disorder specialist. A comprehensive clinical assessment is the first step, where the healthcare provider takes a deep dive into the patient's medical history. This inquiry aims to uncover potential genetic predispositions, environmental triggers, and other pertinent details that may contribute to the development of symptoms.
  • Physical examination: Healthcare providers meticulously observe the head and neck movements, looking for the hallmark tilting, twisting, or pulling that characterize the disorder. 
  • Specialized tests: Electromyography (EMG), a diagnostic technique that records the electrical activity of muscles, can provide insights into the patterns of muscle contractions and the coordination of movements. While an EMG doesn't necessarily confirm cervical dystonia, it contributes valuable information to the diagnostic puzzle.
  • Brain imaging: Functional brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), may also be employed to investigate the neural underpinnings of cervical dystonia. These techniques allow researchers to observe brain activity patterns and identify any abnormalities within the regions associated with movement control. It can also help rule out other conditions. 

Management of cervical dystonia

Managing cervical dystonia requires a tailored approach based on the severity of symptoms and individual patient needs. Treatment options include:

  • Botulinum toxin injections: Botulinum toxin injections, commonly known as botox injections, are the primary treatment for cervical dystonia. The toxin works by blocking nerve signals that cause muscle contractions, thereby reducing abnormal movements and postures. Results typically last for a few months before requiring additional injections2.
  • Oral medications: Certain oral medications, such as muscle relaxants and anticholinergics, may be prescribed to alleviate muscle spasms and improve symptoms. These medications may be used alone or in combination with other treatments4.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy can help improve muscle strength, flexibility, and overall posture. Therapeutic exercises and stretches can assist in managing symptoms and enhancing one’s quality of life4.
  • Surgical interventions: In severe cases that do not respond adequately to other treatments, surgical options such as deep brain stimulation (DBS) or selective denervation surgery may be considered. These interventions involve altering brain activity or surgically removing specific nerves to alleviate symptoms3.

In many cases, a holistic approach that integrates multiple treatment modalities offers the most comprehensive relief. The combination of botulinum toxin injections, oral medications, physical therapy, and even surgical interventions may be tailored to address different aspects of the disorder. This multifaceted strategy ensures that individuals receive a well-rounded approach to symptom management and an enhanced quality of life.


Can cervical dystonia be cured?

Cervical dystonia cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be managed effectively through various treatment approaches. Many individuals experience significant relief and improved quality of life with proper treatment.

Are there any lifestyle changes that can help manage cervical dystonia?

While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, managing stress, maintaining good posture, regular exercise, and staying hydrated can all contribute to better symptom management.

How often are botulinum toxin injections needed, and are there any side effects?

Botulinum toxin injections typically need to be repeated every few months to maintain their effectiveness. Side effects can include mild pain at the injection site, temporary weakness in nearby muscles, and in rare cases, allergic reactions.

Is cervical dystonia a progressive condition?

Cervical dystonia is not always progressive; its course can vary from person to person. Some individuals experience stable symptoms, while others may see their symptoms worsen over time4.


Cervical dystonia, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary contractions of neck muscles leading to abnormal head postures and movements, emerges as a complex interplay of genetics, brain function, and environmental factors. This intricate condition weaves a tapestry of symptoms, including abnormal head positioning, muscle rigidity, restricted range of motion, headaches, and muscle tenderness. The diagnostic journey navigates through clinical assessment, visual observation, specialized tests like electromyography (EMG), and functional brain imaging to unravel the underlying neurological landscape.

While genetics and brain abnormalities form the backbone of cervical dystonia's origin, environmental factors also contribute to its complex manifestation. The diagnostic process culminates in a clinical impression, expertly synthesized by healthcare providers well-versed in the subtleties of movement disorders. Although definitive laboratory tests are lacking, the diagnostic journey rests on a foundation of clinical expertise.

This journey through the multifaceted terrain of cervical dystonia provides individuals with a greater understanding of the condition's underpinnings. Armed with this knowledge, those affected are empowered to make informed decisions about treatment options and management strategies. In the subsequent sections, we delve into the array of treatments available, offering hope for symptom relief and improved quality of life.


  1. Cervical dystonia [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. 2021 [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cervical-dystonia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354123
  2. Cervical Dystonia [Internet]. National Organization for Rare Disorders. 2015 [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from: https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/cervical-dystonia/
  3. Dystonia [Internet]. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/dystonia
  4. Cervical dystonia [Internet]. Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. 2018 [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from: https://dystonia-foundation.org/what-is-dystonia/types-dystonia/cervical-dystonia/
  5. Cervical dystonia | [Internet]. Com.au. [cited 2023 Aug 17]. Available from: https://sydneynorthneurology.com.au/cervical-dystonia/
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Rida Peerzada

Msc Global Healthcare Management, University College London

Rida is a Physical Therapist, with a background in marketing and business strategy honing these skills through her start-up ventures. Rida has 3 years of clinical and nearly 3 years of marketing and content creation experience.

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