How does Proprioception work?
Proprioception is our sense of awareness of where our bodies are in space, as well as our senses of resistance or tension on our limbs and joints such as pulling or pushing an object. If you close your eyes and reach your arm out, even if it isn’t touching anything, you can “feel” where is it being held. We can tell where that arm is in space due to mechanoreceptors, also called stretch receptors, that are located in our muscles, tendons, and joints.
How various nerve receptors work is through something changing them physically leading them to then send a signal to the brain that something has occurred at their locations. Touch receptors have gate-like structures that send a signal to the brain when there is pressure put on those gate-like structures almost as if they are opening up to start the signal. Temperature receptors obviously change with the temperature that they under. The eye has light receptors that chemically start their signal upon receiving a ray of light.
Proprioceptors work in the same way as all of the other receptors in that they send their signal based on a change to their structure. The change that they detect is a physical one rather than a chemical or temperature-induced change. They are often called “stretch receptors” because, in a sense, they detect how far a joint, muscle, or tendon is “stretched out” in its location.
Proprioceptions is incredibly important in virtually everything we do. As it is involved in our eye-hand and eye-foot coordination, when we reach forward to pick something up, those mechanoreceptors are constantly measuring how far our arm is reached and sending signals back to the brain to provide a type of mental picture of where our arm is in space.
It’s important to note the development of proprioception is very vision dependent. Because our bodies and limbs are different sizes, shapes, and weights in adulthood than they were in our youth, our brain has to reprogram what each degree of “stretch” that these nerves experiences really means.
In youth, you dial in proprioception through visually seeing where your limbs are in space and equating that to the “feeling” of stretch that those mechanoreceptors or “stretch receptors” are sending back to the brain. While this may seem fairly easy to do, it is important to remember that in youth, the length and weight of your arms, legs, and other parts of your body are constantly changing and growing. This means that just when your brain may have things dialed in pretty well, everything changes and it has to keep fine-tuning.
In order to paint a better picture of this process, I can’t help but think about my younger brother and observing him in his youth.
I am often reminded of the many times when my younger brother, even though he was very athletic, would be rather clumsy just after he would go through a growth spurt. One thing, in particular, was when he would all of a sudden start accidentally knocking over glasses at the dinner table. Every time he would go to reach for his water glass his hand would get there before his brain had dialed in that it should according to the mechanoreceptors (stretch receptors) because his arms were now longer. Now that they were longer, he had to either consciously think more about where his arms were in space or look at exactly where they were so he knew to stop as he approached the water glass. Until he fine-tuned his proprioception with his now longer arms, he could not as easily reach for his water glass without looking and bring his had to just the right distance.
With this story in mind, it is now easier to start to get a glimpse of the complexity of proprioception. In the same sense that we understand the difference between our gross motor (movement of larger limbs and our torso) and fine motor (more detailed movement such as the movement of fingers) movements, the sense of proprioception is capable of being incredibly detailed and its signaling can be instantaneous.
In professional athletes, fine-tuned and flawless proprioception is absolutely necessary. In soccer, a player must be able to look up and scan the field while knowing the exact angle and location of each foot in relation to the ball they are kicking without having to look down at it. In basketball, players are also required to scan the court while simultaneously dribbling a ball with their hand that it momentarily or continuously for a longer moment of time out of their field of view.
In everyday life, proprioception aids us in tasks such as walking, carrying an object, pushing or moving around objects, and countless tasks that we aren’t even aware of. Proprioception is sort of the “hidden” sense that is constantly working in the background.
Those that can help with proprioceptive issues depend on the conditions of the case, but great places to start are occupational therapists, behavior optometrists, and physical therapists. Feeling and knowing where you are in space is obviously incredibly important for your mobility and safety. Any issues should be addressed with a professional right away.
As a behavioral optometrist, I can tell you from my field that vision is MUCH more than just seeing 20/20. I can’t help but always want to educate people on the 17 Visual Skills and how they are all needed to function in our everyday lives and especially in academics.
If you feel like you or your little one are struggling with reading or any of the visual skills needed to live your life comfortably, don’t worry! Vision Therapy has incredibly high success rates for various vision conditions and lazy-eyes (or eye-turns as we like to call them).
Call our office to schedule an evaluation.