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Proprioception: the Unsung Hero of the Senses

Beginning in grade school, most everyone is taught about the five senses: touch, sight, taste, smell and sound. These are responsible for our interaction with the external world around us. Sensory nerves in our bodies pick up on these outside stimuli and deliver the information to our brains for processing, through our senses. However, we humans also possess several senses that are responsible for our internal functioning. One of the most important of these senses is called proprioception, or the sense of position. It’s defined as the conscious or unconscious awareness of joint position, and it refers to being able to sense the position of your own limbs in space, without seeing them move.

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Indeed, proprioception allows us to recognize and control our limbs without looking at them, and it’s such an integral part of human functioning that it’s often taken for granted. We use this special sense every day, and without it some of the simplest tasks would become nearly, if not entirely, impossible. For example, let’s look at the usually effortless task of walking. Most of us walk with our heads and eyes facing forward, watching what’s ahead of us or looking at our surroundings. We don’t find it necessary to look down and watch every step our feet make, and this is thanks to proprioception. Our body’s internal senses already know how our feet are moving and the position they’re in, without having to constantly watch them. If we did have to keep our eyes on our feet, it would make walking a very difficult task. The same concept is true of driving a car; we’re able to keep our eyes on the road while our body accurately senses how our feet are pressing the gas and brake pedals and where our hands are positioned on the steering wheel.

No single internal organ provides us with proprioceptive ability, as is the case with other types of senses. Rather, it’s a sense that’s distributed throughout the nervous system. Inside our muscles and joints lie specialized sensory nerve endings (proprioceptors) that measure the amount of tension and degree of contraction, and it’s this internally derived information that tells us where our limbs are in space. Typical proprioceptors in skeletal muscle are muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs, which constantly transmit information on nerves traveling to the spinal cord and into the brain. With that information, the brain is able to calculate where the limbs must be at all times. For highly technical processes, the eyes serve as a backup mechanism to confirm this placement of limbs and movement.

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It is possible to train the body to become better at recognizing where the limbs are in space and what they’re doing at any given time. This is especially useful for professional athletes or anyone who depends on expert control of their body and motor functions. Just as some people have a better sense of smell or better vision than others, the same is true with proprioception. Consistent practice and training, however, can help you master the sense of proprioception, thus improving athletic ability.

Proprioceptive senses can be divided into three categories, sometimes referred to as the ABC’s of proprioception. They include: agility, balance and coordination. Agility references the capacity to control the direction of the body or body part during rapid movements, while balance is the ability to maintain equilibrium by keeping the center of gravity within the body’s base of support. Coordination references the smoothness by which an activity is carried out. By training exercises such as working on uneven surfaces or balancing on specific joints with a blindfold, these three features can be improved to help reach your personal level of peak performance. It’s important to note, however, that just as proprioception can be strengthened through regular training, it can also be impaired by disease or injury affecting the skeletal system. Proprioceptive loss is common in peripheral neuropathy, spinal cord disease and severe hemispheric disease. Proprioceptive senses can be altered after orthopedic and spine surgery, as well. The best rehabilitation and therapy programs go to great lengths to evaluate and properly train proprioception.

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While it stands true that the physical fitness of an athlete is extremely important, so is his or her neurological fitness. Improving and strengthening the brain’s performance is an effective way to prevent injuries and improve athletic ability, simultaneously. It does take hard work and consistency to improve the proprioception sense, but with the help of skilled professionals, those who want to see results can do so.

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Proprioception: the Unsung Hero of the Senses originally appeared on usnews.com