We all know about ‘the’ five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. These are the senses that are responsible for our interaction with our external world. However, how many of us know a great deal about the other, perhaps less well known senses?
Some of you may have heard of proprioception – but what does it actually mean, and what does it matter?
Proprioception refers to our body’s ability to sense movement within joints, and to locate joint position, enabling us to know where our limbs are in space (without having to look) at any given moment. This subconscious process is made up of receptor nerves within the muscles,and joints. The receptors sense tension and stretch and send this information to the brain where it is processed. The brain then responds by signalling to muscles to contract or relax in order to produce the desired movement.
In day to day life, we go through thousands of complicated movements requiring precise coordination. Just think of how we put the keys in the ignition of our cars without looking, reach for the gear stick whilst looking at the road, or land a foot off a pavement without breaking stride. This coordinated movement is a result of a normal functioning proprioceptive system. The proprioceptive process can be interrupted, however, particularly post injury. Once a joint has been damaged, there will be a decrease in the proprioceptive response, which means the information that is usually sent to the brain is impaired. This can leave us prone to re-injury as the body’s ability to correct its position in space is inhibited. We can train proprioceptive ability through specific exercises and movements, decreasing the chances of re-injury. These movements should be started as soon as possible post injury, and should ideally form part of your training schedule even when not injured.
Proprioception work is quite common in gyms nowadays (sometimes unintentionally!), but there is a definite bias toward the lower limbs, in my experience. You’ll often see someone standing on a bosu ball for “ankle stability” work, for example, but how many of us do shoulder proprioception work post shoulder injury, or even as a ‘warm up’? Research suggests that decreased proprioception observed in shoulders with injuries may be due to a combination of peripheral tissue injury and neural adaptations (Reference 1). I would argue – and again, research suggests – that proprioception work should form a part of all our training (“…obtained results indicate
the positive effects of the application of proprioceptive training on the improvement of
balance …”, Reference 2)
In ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’, Professor of Neurology Oliver Sacks tells numerous – quite tragic – tales of people who have lost completely their sense of proprioception. In ‘The Disembodied Lady’, he asks “What is more important for us, at an elemental level, than the control, the owning and operation, (of) our own physical selves?”.
Quite. What use strength, without control?
Reference 1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25261091
N.B. There are no ‘one size fits all’ style quick fixes in most injury scenarios, so these article shouldnt be seen as such. They are merely guides to a better understanding of how our bodies work.
For more information please visit www.dc-injuryclinic.co.uk