Proprioception is kinaesthetic awareness, or your brains ability to sense your body, and it’s position or movement. Efficient movement, posture, strength, balance, wellness and sensation depend upon healthy enriched proprioception. Decreased proprioception is a common cause or poor movement efficiency, lack of coordination and pain. As movement specialists and structural integration therapists in training, our main goal is to help restore proprioception to areas that are lacking.
Our body has millions of microscopic sensors called mechanoreceptors that respond to mechanical force, and relay the stimulus information through the nervous system, to our brains. For example mechanoreceptors in the bones of the foot, respond to the repetitive stress of tight, restrictive shoes, and over time our body uses the repeated information to create a solution that makes the area stronger, laying down additional tissue by creating bunions.
PROPRIOCEPTION HAPPENS MOST IN FASCIA
Fascia is 6-10 x more sensitive than muscles, meaning we glean more information about our body and it’s position from our connective tissue, than our muscular system. A common approach to rehabilitation and injury management is to strengthen weak muscles, and loosen off tight muscles. But given that we know fascia is more sensory rich than muscle, a better strategy is to stimulate and enhance the fascial system, and there are many ways to do this.
So for example we decrease our proprioception of our feet every day by wearing shoes that stop us sensing, adjusting and interacting with the surface we are standing on. We can increase proprioception by walking across uneven surfaces, getting massage work or stepping on an acupressure mat. Proprioception allows us to scratch our face and know exactly where to put our hand, or to stand and feel whether we have more weight on one leg. Aerial skiers have trained astonishing levels of proprioception to be able to twist and turn in the air, and land perfectly.
THE PAIN YOU FEEL IS A SYMPTOM, NOT A CAUSE
When chronic pain, or niggling pain strikes, many people want the site of pain treated, but this is often a redundant approach to restoring function and reducing pain. Dr Perry Nickleston Says it well with his business name ‘Stop Chasing Pain’, and Ian O’dwyer said it even more profoundly, ‘A tight muscle never sings’ explaining how the ‘tight’ or stuck areas are dulled in sensation due to inefficiency, causing something else to overwork and hurt.
Our proprioceptors are more active in tissue that is elongated, eccentrically loaded, pulled taught or locked long, and less active in tissue that is shortened, stuck, concentrically and locked short. Said another way, we tend to feel pain and greater sensitivity in areas that are lengthened, and not be able to sense stuck, held and short areas. This is why so many people who spend a lot of time hunched over in kyphosis are desperate for shoulder and neck massages, because the tissue on the back of their neck is pulled long and working hard to pull the head up. The more stuck and short tissues through the front of the neck, chest and abdomen tend to be less sore.
In restoring balance and function we must hunt for the forgotten parts, that are numbed to sensation, and then seek to enrich their feedback loop to the brain which will reduce pressure on the overworked area.
SENSORY BRAIN MAPS
Check out this good looking dude, his name is homunculus. He is a visual representation of how our brain maps areas of the body in terms of sensory maps. The most proprioceptively rich areas, or those with the biggest brain map, are the biggest on this figure. Check out how big those hands and lips are! The hands have the biggest brain map because they require such delicate and intricate levels of sensation and coordination.
The brain creates numerous maps of the body to navigate the environment. Rich, detailed maps make for healthy proprioception (sensation or feedback), leading to rhythmical and efficient movement, detailed body awareness and greater overall health.
Poor maps occur from injury, scar tissue, dehydrated tissue, a lack of intelligent movement etc. These maps are constantly being updated based on incoming stimulus (or lack of!)
For sustainable changes in your body brain maps, you need to repeatedly challenge the body in varied and constant ways. Practice makes perfect, and the more you do something, the more finely tuned and intelligent your brain maps become.
POOR MAPS CAUSE PAIN
Causes of poor brain body maps, can stem from drugs (both recreational and pharmaceutical), lack of movement or use of the area, neurological conditions, pain in the body which will dull sensation, stress, injury, scar tissue and more. Poor detail in body maps can be causal factor in chronic pain. Research has shown that using sensory illusions creates a conflict in the brain, resulting in pain. I have a friend with an amputated leg, who experiences shooting pain in his missing limb, and the problem is due to faulty brain maps. His body still thinks his leg is there, and the illusion creates pain.
If you don't move it, you will lose it! Poor movement, sedentary lifestyles and repeated postures can reduce our sensation in some areas leading to pain. Sensory Motor Amnesia is a very real phenomenon, whereby we lose sensation in areas that are not stimulated.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY IS MOVE
Move as much of you as possible, as often as possible, in novel and varied ways to stimulate different parts in different ways. The more varied you move, the healthier you will become, and perhaps have brain maps even better than a treasure map!
You can create movement with manual therapy, and a skilled therapist will assist in you moving your tissue in the direction in needs to go, whether that's lift, dropping or spreading stuck areas. In our release sessions with clients, we are constantly releasing, and then asking them to move and sense whether it feels better, worse or the same. Laying on a massage table and konking out for an hour won't help with proprioception as much as detailed body work or movement, and constant self appraisal.
Your maps are constantly adjusting and changing, which is why your movement gets smoother after a few repetitions, or after a few sets. Practice may not make perfect, but it does create better maps.
ENHANCE YOUR MAPS
You can change you maps both instantly, and long term. Remember repeated variety in stimulus is key, so move it or lose it!
- Be present in your movement or manual therapy!
- Move faster or slower each exercise repetition
- Move with lighter or heavier, or uneven weights
- Change the angle of your foot (tun a foot slightly in/out)
- Reach / Press / Row to a different direction each time
- Train barefoot, and avoid gloves when training
- Train on uneven surfaces
- Get creative and explore ways to make repetitive movements varied to change the stimulus
- Play, subconscious movement is a winner
- Don't push through pain (which can distort mapping signals!)
- Fascial fitness or release work with manual therapy, foam roller, active release therapy
- Get body work done to increase the super rich areas of side and glide between fascial layers
- If you can't feel an area, touch it, rub it and friction the skin to assist proprioception