Proprioception is often called our hidden sixth sense. Our proprioceptors are located in our muscles and joints and they process information when we move. The stretch of our muscles and the position of our joints is called proprioceptive feedback. This lets our brain know where our arms, legs, and body are at any given moment.
Proprioception is different to touch as the sensory information is coming from our muscles and joints and not our skin. This can be a bit tricky to understand at first. The main thing to remember is that proprioceptive feedback comes from special receptors in the muscles and joints which respond to body position and movement. Our touch system, however, responds to anything that touches our skin.
What does our proprioceptive sense help us to do?
Our proprioceptive sense helps us to:
Know where our limbs are
Grade our force and speed of movement
Maintain our muscle tone
Maintain our balance
Why is proprioception important?
The first thing our proprioceptive sense does is let our brain know where our limbs are in space. A good example of this is walking. You don’t need to look down at your feet to know where they are. You don’t need to look to lift your foot up, move it forward and then place it down again. These movements just happen because your proprioceptors send constant information to your brain about the position of your hip, knee, ankle, and toes to ensure they are in the right place.
Any time we move our arms, legs, hands, feet, neck, and spine our brain receives proprioceptive feedback. Even when we are still, the stretch of the muscles, or lack of stretch, and the joint position tell our brain where we are.
When you’re watching TV you can reach over to the controller and find it, if needed, without looking. It is your proprioceptive system that sends your arm to the right place. Your touch sense might feel around to locate the controller but your proprioceptive system then opens your hand and helps you to pick it up, direct it towards the TV and press the button.
Grading of force and speed of limb movement
When you press that button you need to press it with enough force to make it work, but not too firmly that the controller slides out of your hand or breaks. This is called grading of force. You also need to move the controller with the right speed so that you don’t crash your hand into yourself or another person. This is your speed of limb movement. If we use too much force or speed we break things. If we use too little then we might not be successful. When hammering in a nail, for example, if you hit too hard you might bend the nail, but if you hit too softly it won’t go in. Cracking an egg is another great example, if you tap too lightly it won’t open, but if you crack it with too much force you will be cleaning up a mess!
Proprioception is what allows our limbs to move into the right position, with the right speed and the right amount of force for the activity.
Muscle tone refers to the constant partial contraction our muscles are making when we are still. Muscle tone allows our bodies to increase or decrease tension as required when moving. Our proprioceptive system helps our vestibular sense to support this tension. Some children with Sensory Processing Disorder might have lower than average muscle tone and this can affect their postural control and stability.
Finally, our proprioceptive sense helps to support our balance. It again works with the vestibular sense which is primarily responsible for balance. Our proprioceptors give our brains even more information about where our body is and this helps with our balance. For example, if you step on an unstable surface, you receive vestibular information from your inner ear about the change in head position and you receive proprioceptive information about the position that your ankle, knee, and hip are in. The combination of this information helps your body keep upright and not fall over.
What might it look like if our proprioceptive sense isn’t working well?
When the proprioceptive system doesn’t process the information it receives very well, there are two typical responses. Some children and adults are slower to respond to the input, which means they need more proprioceptive input to understand. These children and adults could either respond by seeking out more input or they might be slower to respond to the input. The literature currently doesn’t give examples of sensitivity to proprioception. Some typical traits seen for each type of response are listed below:
Seeking out proprioception:
Jumping and crashing – with a preference for the crash
Hanging off things
Slow response to proprioception:
Using too much force, and may break things accidentally
Described as having ‘weak muscles’ and may use too little pressure
Leaning or slumping on walls, furniture or others
Becoming tired easily
Why is proprioception important for learning and work?
In order to be successful with learning, you need to be able to sit in your chair and focus and attend to the teacher. If you’re not quite sure where your body is in that chair, you might need to move and seek out extra proprioceptive feedback. This can often get children and adults in trouble when all they are really trying to do is concentrate!
If you’re not really sure where your body is, you’re also likely to run into your peers more frequently. You might accidentally step on them as you aren’t quite sure where your foot is. Or bump them when reaching for the glue as you just aren’t judging the distance correctly. Or you might lean into them during carpet time or when you’re at the table as this gives you more feedback about where you are. Whilst this helps you, it can be annoying for your peers!
Why is grading of force important at school and home?
Grading of force is essential for all fine motor and gross motor activities at school and home. When you write you need to be able to use enough pressure on the pencil: use too little and the teacher can’t see your work; use too much, and your hand will become tired quite quickly (you might even constantly need to sharpen your pencil!).
If you can’t hold toys with the correct amount of force, you might not be able to make them work, or you could break them.
At lunch, if you pull too hard when opening your snack packet, you could drop your snack over the ground. If you’re too gentle though, it just won’t open and you’ll have to ask for help. If you use too much force when playing in the playground you might accidentally hurt your friends. In the playground and at PE your proprioceptors make sure that you throw or kick the ball with the right amount of force to reach the target. Too little and you miss, too much and you may break something or hurt someone.
There are few movement tasks at school and home that don’t rely on proprioception for success. If the body is not processing proceptive input well, then movements are often uncoordinated and can take a lot more effort. This can be frustrating for children and adults as, even though they are trying their best, their body just responds differently to others.
For more information you might like these videos on proprioception:
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