Proprioception: The Real Sixth Sense

Proprioception is the ability to sense our position in space. It comes from the Latin words proprius, meaning "own" or "self" and recipere, meaning "to receive". It's our ability to receive information about our body, whereas all the other senses gather information from our environment.

This may seem a little pointless at first, but let's try an exercise. Close your eyes, and brush some imaginary lint off your shoulder. Then, with your eyes still closed, touch your knee. Then turn your head as far to the left as you can, and then turn it back to the center. Now open your eyes. How'd you'd do? And more importantly, how did you actually do it? How did you know how far to reach your hand to brush your shoulder and then where to move your hand to touch your knee? And how did you know when your head was centered again? It's your proprioception!

How does it work?

We have specialized neurons and sensory cells in our joints and our muscles. These receptors change their firing patterns based on how extended a joint is, how contracted or relaxed a muscle is, and how the muscle length is changing. Some also consider our vestibular system as part of our proprioceptive senses because it gives us information about our position and orientation in space. The vestibular system includes your semi-circular canals by your ears. (when you get dizzy, it's because your vestibular system is confused and thinks you're spinning when you're not).

Your brain takes in all the information from these proprioceptive sensors and then processes the information. Because so much of this information is being processed on a subconscious level, it creates a seamless experience for you that includes a near flawless awareness of your body.

Just like everything else in your body, this system can get thrown off. Sometimes if a joint is slightly out of place, or a muscle is strained or too tight, the signals sent to your brain won't be as accurate as they should be. And sometimes the dysfunction can originate in the brain. Certain areas can be a little too active or not active enough.


When It Goes Wrong

This may not seem like a big issue. So what if you can't touch your nose with your eyes closed? Well, it actually makes a big difference. It can affect your gait, which affects your posture, which can lead to injuries from repeated strained use and chronic pain. And when it's caused by a misaligned joint or tense muscle group, it can weaken the body's musculoskeletal system, leading to injuries such as sprained ankles.

The good news is that even when your body's proprioceptive system get's out of sync, it's possible to recalibrate it. As a chiropractor, Dr. KC Oliver can realign the joints and muscles, and as a functional neurologist, he can help the functional areas of the brain return to their normal firing patterns.


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