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Ask Fuzzy: What is proprioception?

Question: What is proprioception?

Proprioception is your real sixth sense. It's the sense of where your body is in space. This differs from spatial awareness, which is where you are in relation to the objects around you.

Proprioception integrates information from a variety of different sources, including stretch receptors in your skin, force and stretch receptors in your muscles, vestibular information from your inner eye, and your vision.

Proprioception is deeply ingrained in how children learn fine and gross motor movements. They are able to test the limits of personal space and learn from a variety of interactions how to relate to others. In some children this may not develop as quickly as is normal. This is why sensory integration therapy is used by occupational therapists.

The idea of proprioception may be hard to conceptualise, but once you lose it, it can become obvious. This can happen either by one of the sensory inputs  being damaged (for example, a muscle sprain or inner ear damage) or the part of the brain that receives sensory input and translates that into a cohesive picture is damaged. This can be caused by things such as stroke or Parkinson's disease.

A variety of symptoms can occur when proprioception is impaired. It can be as subtle as poor posture resulting from impaired proprioception in the core of the body, or as debilitating as being bedridden as a result of the brain being unable to map out the gross motor movements required to walk or crawl.

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The most common symptom of impaired proprioception is impaired balance. Everyone after the age of 65 will start to have impaired proprioception, and therefore reduced balance. This is a big contributor to elderly people having falls.

It is possible to improve proprioception through a variety of  therapies. The main aim of these is to help your body understand where all of its joints and limbs are in relation to the rest of your body. While balance boards and balls can be a good home solution to joint injuries, Tai Chi and yoga can be a great way to increase proprioception in your limbs as well as your trunk.

If you are looking to improve your proprioception, the best place to start is with your local physiotherapist.

Response by: Hayley Teasdale, neuroscience Phd candidate University of Canberra

Brought to you by the Fuzzy Logic science show, 11am Sundays on 2XX 98.3FM. Send your questions to askfuzzy@zoho.com