What is deformational plagiocephaly?
Deformational (or positional) plagiocephaly refers to a misshapen (asymmetrical) shape of the head (cranium) from repeated pressure to the same area of the head. Plagiocephaly literally means oblique head, from the Greek words plagio for oblique and cephale for head.
How is deformational plagiocephaly different from craniosynostosis?
Craniosynostosis is premature fusion of one or more of the sutures in the skull. True synostosis may limit the size of the cranial vault (skull) and therefore impair brain growth. Or it may cause other areas of the skull to grow in abnormal ways to accommodate the early fusion of a suture. The diagnosis is made after a clinical evaluation by a craniofacial surgeon and/or a neurosurgeon. X-rays and CT scans of the head may be performed to confirm the diagnosis of craniosynostosis. Surgery is usually the recommended treatment.
In deformational plagiocephaly, there is no fusion of the skull sutures. It is a clinical diagnosis made after a thorough medical history and physical examination by your child's doctor or a craniofacial surgeon or neurosurgeon. X-rays and/or CT scans are usually not necessary. Treatment of deformational plagiocephaly generally includes positioning and/or helmeting.
The major differences between craniosynostosis and deformational plagiocephaly are summarized in the chart below:
Fusion of cranial sutures
Premature fusion of cranial suture(s)
Normal cranial sutures
Made with X-rays and CT scans
Usually made without X-rays and other imaging studies
Positioning and/or helmeting
May include back sleeping, restrictive intrauterine environment, muscular torticollis, and prematurity
What causes deformational plagiocephaly?
By keeping an infant's head in one position for long periods of time, the skull flattens (external pressure). Occasionally, a baby is born with this flattening because of a tight intrauterine environment (for example, in multiple births, small maternal pelvis, or with a breech position). Other factors which may increase the risk of deformational plagiocephaly include the following:
Muscular torticollis. One cause of deformational plagiocephaly may be muscular torticollis. Muscular torticollis is a congenital (present at birth) finding in which one or more of the neck muscles is extremely tight, causing the head to tilt toward it and the chin to point in the opposite direction. Torticollis is often associated with the development of plagiocephaly since the infant holds his or her head against the mattress in the same position repeatedly.
Prematurity. Premature infants are at a higher risk for plagiocephaly since the cranial bones become stronger and harder in the last 10 weeks of pregnancy. Also, since many premature infants spend extended periods of time in the neonatal intensive care unit on a respirator, their heads are maintained in a fixed position, increasing the risk for this condition.
Back sleeping. Infants who sleep on their backs or in car seats without alternating positions for extended periods of time are also at a higher risk for deformational plagiocephaly. However, to decrease the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), the safest way for an infant to sleep is on his or her back. Even slide sleeping is associated with a higher risk of sudden death.
Treatment for deformational plagiocephaly
Specific treatment will be determined by your child's doctor based on the severity of the deformational plagiocephaly. Frequent rotation of your child's head would be the first recommendation once your infant has been diagnosed with plagiocephaly. Alternating your infant's sleep position by turning the head to the opposite side, and not putting infants on their backs when they are awake, may also help prevent and treat positional plagiocephaly. Some cases do not require any treatment and the condition may resolve spontaneously when the infant begins to sit.
If the deformity is moderate to severe and a trial of repositioning has failed, your child's doctor may recommend a cranial remodeling band or helmet.
How does helmeting correct deformational plagiocephaly?
Helmets are usually made of an outer hard shell with a foam lining. Gentle, persistent pressures are applied to capture the natural growth of an infant's head, while inhibiting growth in the prominent areas and allowing for growth in the flat regions. As the head grows, adjustments are made frequently. The helmet essentially provides a tight, round space for the head to grow into. Newer studies have shown helmets were not helpful for moderate to severe skull deformation.
How long will my child wear a helmet?
The average treatment with a helmet is usually three to six months, depending on the age of the infant and the severity of the condition. Careful and frequent monitoring is required. Helmets must be prescribed by a licensed health care provider with craniofacial experience.