The structure of the neck is composed of bones, muscles, blood vessels and lymph glands. It is responsible for supporting and turning the head. Babies have short necks and their neck muscles are not strong enough to support their heads. Some infants are born with or develop problems related to neck structure that affect their ability to use neck muscles or may result in long-term complications.
The neck contains the bones of the spinal column, known as the cervical vertebrae; it is bordered by the bones of the clavicle and the skull. The main muscles of the neck are the sternocleidomastoid, which border the neck on both sides and are responsible for head rotation. The trapezius muscles are also found between the neck and shoulder, and they work to move the head, as do the arms and shoulders.
Parents must hold a newborn’s head until she grows and the muscles of her neck strengthen. It is important to let a baby spend some time on her stomach with a parent helping her as she learns to raise her head and strengthen her neck muscles. An infant’s trachea and esophagus both run through the neck, facilitating two important infant activities--eating and breathing. When neck problems occur, they may affect an infant’s ability to perform these activities.
The most common disorder among infants that affects neck muscles is called torticollis. According to New York University, torticollis causes the neck muscles to contract, resulting in muscle shortening on one side. This causes the head to twist or lean to one side, resulting in abnormal infant posture. Muscle spasms or neck stiffness may also occur with torticollis.
Some infants are born with lumps or soft masses in the neck which have the potential to cause problems. A dermoid cyst is a common type of neck mass that grows slowly and can cause an obstruction. A thyroglossal duct cyst usually is present at birth in the area of the neck where the thyroid gland developed during the fetal stage. An infant may also have enlarged lymph nodes in the neck that are a symptom of infection.
Treatment of neck problems in infants depends on the cause and if the problem has the potential for future disability. Some neck cysts can grow to a large size and are typically removed as a surgical procedure. A thyroglossal duct cyst has the potential to turn into cancer during adulthood and should be evaluated and removed by a surgeon. Other types of neck problems, such as those related to neck muscles, are treated with therapy to improve the quality of life. Treatment of torticollis involves neck muscle stretching exercises through physical therapy or positioning a baby to lie on the unaffected side.
- NYU Langone Medical Center: Torticollis
- Children’s Hospital Boston: Cysts and Sinuses of the Head and Neck
- “Understanding Pathophysiology;” S.E. Huether & K.L. McCance; 2000