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Sensory Tools: Proprioception

Sensory Tools: Proprioception

By Shane Sauer


Proprioception, or awareness of self, might sound like a spiritual pursuit.  But it actually means knowing where your body is in space. It’s your third major sensory system.  Your brain knows the location of any one body part based on its relationship to other body parts. Think of this as knowing where a store is because it's one block from your gym.

When you move, your proprioceptive system sends a lot of information to your brain. When you stop moving, those signals stop, too. Over time, that lack of information can spell trouble and you’ll often feel pain or see a decrease in performance (strength, flexibility, etc.). If you aren't careful, this can be a downward spiral... pain increases, movement decreases, so pain increases more and so on and so forth. And it’s cumulative, too. Your brain tracks each body part by its relationship to other body parts. So, if your brain is having trouble identifying one part, it will likely have trouble identifying others too.

Besides your movement, your brain gets proprioceptive information in other ways too. Your skin and tissues are filled with receptors for things like touch, temperature, chemicals, pressure, and threats. While your five major senses—vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell—aren’t all proprioceptive in nature (I’ve talked about the role of vision and hearing in prior blogs). Taste and smell are chemical sensations and touch is, well, touch!  When your sensory systems aren’t giving your brain good signals, that also can cause pain and poor movement.

Just for fun, here are some cool examples of how using each one of these sensations can make you feel better:

  1. Movement - “Walk it off.” We’ve all heard this one.  Funny thing is, this works!  All those signals from movement drown out the ones from stubbing your toe.
  2. Touch – If you bump into something, you tend to rub the spot you hit.  Just like movement, the signals from touch drown out the pain signals.
  3. Temperature – Heating or icing an injury can have other physiological effects, but initially it’s just the novel sensation that can make things feel better.
  4. Chemical – Relief from using balms and essential oils is your body responding to the chemicals in them.
  5. Pressure – Wrapping can help reduce swelling, but the deep sensation of it makes a lot of people feel good too.

The other sensory tools we’ve discussed in prior blogs tell you what’s going on outside your body. The proprioceptive system marks a shift: some of its sensations are external, but others are internal. In the next blog, I’ll dive a little deeper into sensation from within the body, or interoception.

Check out this video that exapnds on and takes a deeper look at the information presented in this blog.
You can find also find other videos from MATRIX Personalized Fitness on YouTube.