Craniosynostosis is the premature fusion of 1 or more cranial sutures during the 1st year of life. Craniosynostosis is classified as simple or complex, and can be caused by environmental factors or genetic syndromes. Patients are typically asymptomatic and concern may arise from caregiver observations. Diagnosis is made clinically and by imaging of the head. Treatment is surgical and prognosis depends on classification and the presence of genetic syndromes.

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Definitions and Epidemiology


  • Craniosynostosis: premature fusion of 1 ⩲ cranial sutures, causing an abnormal shaping of the skull 
  • Scaphocephaly: elongated skull with frontal bossing, often due to fusion of sagittal sutures 
  • Plagiocephaly: flattening of half of the forehead with raising of ipsilateral eyebrow due to unilateral coronal suture fusion
  • Trigonocephaly: triangular-shaped forehead with prominent midline ridge caused by fusion of the metopic suture
  • Brachycephaly: shortened skull that is wider and taller than normal due to bilateral coronal suture fusion
  • Oxycephaly: tall cranium due to inadequately treated brachycephaly
  • Acrocephaly: elevation of the anterior skull due to combined fusion of lambdoid, sagittal, and coronal sutures
Normal cranial sutures

Normal cranial sutures

Image by Lecturio.


  • Simple versus complex:
    • Simple: A single suture fuses.
    • Complex or compound: Multiple sutures fuse.
  • Primary versus secondary:
    • Primary: premature closure due to abnormalities of skull development
    • Secondary: closure due to failure of brain growth and expansion


  • Incidence:
    • 1 in 2,000 live births in the United States
    • 1 in 2,500 live births worldwide
    • No gender or racial predilection
  • Scaphocephaly (sagittal suture) is the most common.
  • 85% of cases are simple.
  • 10%–20% of cases are associated with genetic syndromes.
  • Complex cases tend to be associated with other malformations.

Etiology and Pathophysiology



  • Genetic mutations:
    • Caused by gene mutations of fibroblast growth factor (FGF), FGF receptor, or transforming growth factor beta (TGF-β)
    • Alters communication between the dura mater and mesenchyma of suture
    • Can be hereditary
  • Environmental influence:
    • Advanced maternal age
    • Nicotine use in pregnancy
    • Clomiphene citrate in pregnancy


  • Crouzon syndrome:
    • Most common
    • Bilateral coronal craniosynostosis
    • Midfacial abnormalities
    • Hydrocephalus
    • Exophthalmos 
    • Airway obstruction
    • Mutation localized in GFR2 gene
  • Apert syndrome:
    • Coronal craniosynostosis
    • Hand, elbow, hip, and knee deformities 
    • Exophthalmos
  • Carpenter syndrome:
    • Lambdoid and sagittal craniosynostosis
    • Limb abnormalities (syndactyly) 
  • Pfeiffer syndrome:
    • Unicoronal craniosynostosis
    • Facial deformities
    • Limb abnormalities
    • Exophthalmos
    • Hearing loss


  • Skull is made up of 5 separate bones:
    • 2 frontal bones
    • 2 parietal bones
    • Occipital bone
  • In infants → bones are separated by open sutures and fontanelles (anterior and posterior). 
  • During childbirth → skull bones overlap and compress at sutures and fontanelles to allow delivery of head through vaginal canal.
  • After birth → sutures remain open to allow for brain growth.
  • Craniosynostosis is due to inappropriate closure of sutures.

Clinical Presentation

Aside from an abnormally shaped head, most patients are asymptomatic. Careful exam should be performed to evaluate for signs of increased intracranial pressure including developmental delay.

Table: Epidemiology and clinical presentation of different forms of craniosynostosis
TypeEpidemiologyDeformityClinical presentation
  • 18% of cases 
  • More common in girls
  • Associated with Apert syndrome and Crouzon disease
  • Plagiocephaly
  • Brachycephaly
  • Acrocephaly
  • Flattened forehead on affected side
  • Flat cheeks
  • Nose deviation on normal side
  • Higher supraorbital margin
  • Outward rotation of orbit can result in amblyopia
  • Broad, flattened forehead
  • In Apert syndrome, accompanied by syndactyly
  • In Crouzon disease, accompanied by hypoplasia of midface and progressive proptosis
  • 10%–20% of cases
  • Male:female ratio of 4:1
  • Lambdoid/occipital plagiocephaly
  • Right side affected in 70% of cases
  • Flattening of occiput
  • Indentation along synostotic suture
  • Bulging of ipsilateral forehead leading to rhomboid skull
  • Ipsilateral ear is anterior and inferior
  • Brachycephaly with bilateral anteriorly and inferiorly displaced ears
  • Association with 19p chromosome abnormality
  • Trigonocephaly
  • Pointed forehead and midline ridge
  • Hypotelorism
  • Oxycephaly
  • Cloverleaf skull (Kleeblattschädel)
  • Tower skull with undeveloped sinuses and shallow orbits
  • Elevated intracranial pressure

Diagnosis and Management


Diagnosis relies on clinical observation, but imaging may be used to further characterize anatomy for classification or surgery

  • Ultrasound of the head is preferred due to lack of radiation: can give a prenatal diagnosis
  • CT scan of the head
  • X-rays of skull
  • DNA testing to look for underlying genetic disorders
synostotic sagittal suture with a posteriorly twisted skull

3D CT showing the synostotic sagittal suture with a posteriorly twisted skull

Image: “Atypical craniosynostosis with torticollis and neurological symptoms” by Koljonen V, Leikola J, Valanne L, Hukki J. License: CC BY 3.0


Molded helmet:

  • For mild cases
  • Reshapes head

Surgical intervention: 

  • Goals:
    • Give brain room to grow
    • Release developing intracranial pressure (pseudotumor cerebri)
    • Correction of appearance
  • Needed in:
    • Hydrocephalus
    • ↑ intracranial pressure
  • Options available include:
    • Shunting
    • Ventriculoperitoneal shunting 
    • Ventriculopleural shunting


  • Simple cases: 5% risk of recurrence
  • Complex cases: up to 50% risk of recurrence
  • Recurrence is ↑ in presence of genetic syndromes


  • Permanent facial deformity
  • Poor self-esteem
  • ↑ intracranial pressure can lead to:
    • Developmental delay
    • Cognitive impairment
    • Lethargy
    • Seizures
    • Death

Differential Diagnosis

  • Positional plagiocephaly: a common occurrence in infants that presents as a flat spot on a baby’s head that is caused by the baby spending too much time lying on their back. Positional plagiocephaly does not affect brain development or create increased intracranial pressure. The condition is treated by changing the position of the head and/or using a helmet in severe cases. 
  • Infant torticollis: contracture of the sternocleidomastoid muscle due to abnormal fetal positioning or birth trauma. Typically noted by one month of age when the head is tilted to one side. The condition can be associated with facial asymmetry. Treatment is physical therapy and reassuring parents as the condition typically resolves by 6 months of age.


  1. Johnson D, Wilkie AO. (2011). Craniosynostosis. European journal of human genetics. EJHG, 19(4), 369–376.
  2. Okamoto T, Nuri T, Harada A, Kyutoku S, Ueda K. (2019). Cranial Suture Measurement by 2-point Method in Ultrasound Screening of Craniosynostosis. Plastic and reconstructive surgery. Global open, 7(5), e2225.

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