Cervical dystonia, also known as torticollis, is the most common type of dystonia and affects the muscles in the neck. There are thought to be 40,000 people in the UK with this condition with the average age of sufferers being the early 40s, and with more women being affected than men. Cervical dystonia causes the muscles in the neck to spasm or contract meaning that the head and neck twist, are pulled forward, pulled backward or pulled from side to side. These symptoms can range from being very mild to very severe and from jerky spasms to being quite sustained. As a result these symptoms can cause additional problems of neck pain and stiffness. Living with cervical dystonia can be difficult to cope with, as head turning can stop someone seeing the road whilst driving and make it difficult to eat, brush teeth or apply makeup. Therefore, many people with the condition find embarrassment and anxiety a major symptom as well.
Cervical dystonia is known as being a late-onset primary dystonia. Being part of this group means that the cause for cervical dystonia is unknown and in fact the condition itself is poorly understood. Cervical dystonia tends to develop gradually and in a quarter of all cases this is accompanied by trembling hands. It is thought that most cases of primary dystonia are caused by problems with a part of the brain known as the basal ganglia. This is a collection of brain cells that are responsible for sending messages from the brain to various muscles in order to move them. It is suspected that the basal ganglia does not produce enough neurotransmitters, or it produces the wrong type, resulting in problems with muscle function.
Stress can often cause the symptoms of cervical dystonia to worsen, and it has been reported that hypnotherapy and relaxation techniques can help by relieving stress. In most sufferers the condition will worsen over five years until the symptoms begin to stabilise, but a third of patients go on to develop segmental dystonia affecting the arm. Also, in around 10% of patients the symptoms can stop spontaneously and then reoccur later.
Unfortunately there is no cure, however there are some treatments available that can control the symptoms. Core treatment must be carried out by a neurologist, with botox being a common prescribed treatment. Other treatments include medication, muscle relaxants and physical therapy. With cervical dystonia, neck spasming can normally be relieved by touching your chin, neck or back of the head, known as a sensory trick, but the reason why this helps is unknown. Selective peripheral denervation surgery is also an option for those with cervical dystonia. This procedure allows the doctor to cut away the nerve endings that are connected to the spasming resulting in some loss of feeling in the neck afterwards.
For more information about Dystonia go to The Dystonia Society
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