What is proprioception?
Proprioception is one of three senses classed as personal senses that all people have in addition to the five environmental senses that are commonly discussed. This means that most people have never heard of proprioception and have no idea what it does and it can be a little complex to understand. Fundamentally, the proprioceptive sense provides us with information about the position of our body parts in space and helps us use our body effectively within its surroundings.
The proprioceptive sense means that most people can close their eyes and touch their nose with their finger. Our proprioceptive awareness is what allows us to know where our nose is and how our finger is moving towards it without using our visual sense. We have a perception of our body without seeing it, and this proprioceptive sense allows us to coordinate our movements to end up in the correct location at the correct time. For example, when catching a ball we use our visual sense and our proprioceptive sense to coordinate our body to catch the ball… or not, as the case may be.
This sense also provides our brain with key information from our muscles and joints about how our body needs to interact with its environment. It tells us how much strength we need to excerpt to lift something, or helps us control how much pressure we need use to hold, or push something.
Sense or sensation
Proprioception can be tricky to think of because we have a sense of our body and its position but often without a sensation. For example, when walking into the kitchen, I adjust my course slightly to the left to avoid banging my side on the countertop. I successfully change my course and do not bang into the counter. This means that I accurately sense my body’s position in relation to itself and the furniture. Because I got it right I do not get the painful sensation of banging into the counter. I was still relying on sensory information from my proprioceptive sense, however.
Another example is when running, should you transition from running on a paved path to the grass, your body (receptors in your joints and muscles) will sense the change, and make adjustments in the way you are running. If we did not have this sense, we would not adjust, and we would stumble and fall.
Elements of proprioceptive awareness
Where are my joints and limbs? Where is my body in space?
What force is acting on me and what force do I need to interact appropriately?
For example, proprioceptive awareness allows us to push a door open rather than flinging it open, to lift a heavy object without mishandling it. Think about when you misinterpret these and a door opens easily unexpectedly or you pick up an object that you expect to be heavy that isn’t. That’s often when we become most aware of proprioception.
Kinaesthesia: awareness of motion
How is my body moving? Where will it stop? How will it interact with the objects around it in space? Will it come into contact with other objects? There is a lot to this, including speed, direction, force and more.
The purpose of proprioception
Proprioception helps us to constantly adjust our sense of where our body is, which helps us to move smoothly, and maintain balance and posture.
Proprioception allows us to walk around without banging into objects or falling down. It ensures that we touch a baby gently rather than firmly. It allows us to smoothly adjust the way we step when we change from walking on gravel to concrete.
We are rarely aware of any of these things in our day to day life.
Regulating the proprioceptive sense...
It may still be unclear how we can stimulate or use the proprioceptive sense in terms of sensory regulation. We do though, we just don’t recognise that that is what we are doing.
When we swaddle a baby the pressure and sense of containment stimulates the proprioceptive sense; most babies find this calming and it can help them fall asleep.. Likewise, if we wrap ourselves in a blanket when distressed, sleep with a weighted blanket, or hug a pillow the pressure provides proprioceptive input in a way that many find calming. Some people find clothes like leggings that fit snugly to their body more comfortable than loose fitting items. All of these things provide proprioceptive input, and stimulate the sense in a way that provides regulation for people who seek this input. These things all offer a sense of physical containment.
We talk about how proprioceptive input, or containment, can help with calming with regards to sling use, and sleep cues, but we can use it as adults too. Recognising whether we seek or avoid this input when we feel stressed allows us to become more aware of our own sensory needs. Some people find proprioceptive input disregulating. It is ‘too much’. Everyone has a different comfort zone. This means we can consciously and proactively regulate them and use them when we feel disregulated.
Sometimes using or removing sensory input, can be calming, but we can also use it for play.
The game baby burrito, which you can play with babies, toddlers and young children, involves wrapping them in a blanket like a swaddle. Something with a little stretch is great for this. Once wrapped you can gently rock them back and forth, or pretend to eat them, before unwrapping them…and repeating. This simple game involves adding and removing proprioceptive input, and simple silly fun. This can help support proprioceptive awareness.
If they enjoy this game then it usually involves a lot of laughing. It can be helpful for playfully supporting their self regulation. If they don’t enjoy it, then don’t play it, everyone has a different zone of regulation for each sense.
Physiotherapists often offer activities that are designed to improve proprioceptive awareness to support patients/clients to change their posture, movements or how they perform activities to promote healing.