You’ve been for a developmental assessment with your little one and the therapists have given you all these ideas for proprioception and ‘heavy work’. What is it all about, why is it useful and how can you integrate it into your daily life with ease?
What Is Proprioception?
Okay, so we all know the five basic senses: touch, hearing, sight, taste and smell. However, proprioception is often known as the ‘hidden’ or ‘sixth’ sense and works a little differently to the basic five senses.
In short, proprioception is all about the body’s ability to sense itself, its own movements and body position. Specifically, proprioception is the sensory information provided by our body to tell us how our body parts are moving in relation to each other. In this way, it differs from vestibular processing, which is the interpretation of our head’s movement in space.
How Does It Work?
Within our joints and muscles are cells or ‘sensors’ which process sensory information related to movement. These are called proprioceptors. Proprioceptors communicate with the brain via the nervous system.
As we move a body part, let’s take the arm as an example, we activate these sensors (as your bicep contracts, the proprioceptors are triggered in the muscle and the elbow and shoulder joints) and they send feedback to the brain to inform it of the movement. The brain then needs to interpret these messages in order to “tell” you how your body has moved and in what position it now is. Consider this scenario:
Your eyes are closed. I take your right arm and move it into a position. You can then move your left arm into the same position without opening your eyes. Similarly, you can tie a bow behind your back (like putting on an apron). If I put a bottle in your hand, eyes still closed, you will be able to bring it to your mouth in a coordinated, gentle manner and drink from it. This is proprioception telling you where your body parts are and how to move them to get them into this position.
What Does It Do?
Proprioception assists with the following functions:
- It tells your body where your limbs (arms and legs) are.
- I am bringing my right arm up to my mouth. My elbow is bent and my hand is closed around the bottle.
- It guides your movement gradation (speed and force of movement).
- I can slowly and gently place a block onto a block tower so that it does not fall over.
- Your proprioceptive sense makes sure your hand moves smoothly and slowly enough to place the block without knocking the tower or pushing down so hard it falls over.
- It assists in grading your muscle tone.
- This is the tension in your muscles at any given moment. It is also described as the readiness of your muscle to react or contract.
- If your proprioception isn’t accurately interpreted, your tone may not adapt to react appropriately to the situation.
- Helps you maintain your balance. If you stand on one foot, you may feel some movement in your ankle. These are your proprioceptors telling your brain what’s happening with your leg. They are also adapting your muscle tone (ankle, leg, core etc) in order to keep you in that position.
Why Is It Important?
As you can see, proprioception plays a large role in our daily functioning. Without the accurate interpretation of it, your little one may struggle to know where his body is in space, perceived boundaries of social interaction, grade movements, force, speed, and coordination, sit upright at a desk, move without looking where and how to move, balance, write and play a sport.
Every single time any part of the body is moved (finger, arms, legs, spine, jaw) feedback is sent to the brain for interpretation. Even when we are still, the stretch or lack of stretch in the muscles, along with the position of the joint, tell our brain where we are. Proprioception is what allows our limbs to move into the right position, with the right speed and the right amount of force required for the activity.
Just as with the ‘main five’ senses, we all interpret the world and its stimuli somewhat differently. Some children may require more sensory input in order to interpret it accurately and use it to modulate whereas other children may be very sensitive to it and will try to avoid too much of the stimuli which provide this sensory input. It’s a spectrum and there isn’t necessarily a problem, however, with a better understanding of it, we can provide more appropriate assistance in order to function optimally at home, creche, school and on the sports field.
The difficulty with proprioceptive processing can be divided into proprioception seeking and proprioception avoiding. A child who seeks proprioceptive input generally struggles to interpret the proprioceptive stimuli that the environment provides naturally. Therefore, they seek more input in order to modulate, interpret their movements and position in space, control tone and balance and plan their movements and coordination appropriately. This increased proprioception allows better interpretation, modulation and concentration. However, if you don’t understand it, it may appear that the child is not paying attention, is hyperactive or is distracted and distracting.
Proprioception seeking may be seen in behaviours such as:
- Jumping and smacking: Your child may love jumping on things (bed, trampoline), jumping off things (the higher and harder the better), crashing into a wall of pillows, bouncing on a gym ball, punching bags, and kicking or smacking the gym ball.
- Squeezing: This might be seen in a child who loves tight hugs, being wrapped tightly in a towel or blanket, tight clothes, squeezing your hand very tightly or even packing a whole lot of teddies (the heavier the better) on top of himself.
- Pushing and pulling: Your child might love arm wrestling, pulling the heaviest crate along the floor, pushing the trolley, lawnmower or wheelbarrow, tug-of-war, hanging from monkey-bars or trees, throwing heavy balls or boxes, pushing really hard when writing and holding the pencil really tightly.
- Heavy work: No need to ask twice, your child loves to carry the heavy grocery bags or pull his own bag to the car. He may even like packing bricks and sand or carrying the heavy rocks around while you garden.
- Movement: You’ve asked three times for her to stop but little Lucy is still bouncing her feet up and down while tapping her pencil on the desk with her right hand and twirling her ponytail with her left hand.
- Chewing: These kids chew on their shirts, on their pencils, on their eraser or just about anything else that is chewy. There are many proprioceptors in the jaw!
- Clumsiness: If you require more proprioception than what you are getting, your tone might be too low for the situation and you may struggle to grade movements. This, in turn, leads to clumsiness in movement and interaction. These kids may trip over the smallest of steps or bump over things that you thought were not easily bumped over. If your little one has broken two cups, a plate, a glass and tooth in the last month, it may indicate that they struggle to grade their movements because their interpretation of their movements is a little slower than “normal”.
- Low tone: Although the low tone is not always caused by poor proprioceptive interpretation, this is a reasonably common cause. The signs include poor postural endurance, slumping at the table, holding their head in their hands when doing table-top activities, lying on the table at dinner time, extra flexible joints, w-sitting, hooking their feet/legs around the feet of a chair and poor balance.
In our next post, we will look at tips for helping your proprioceptive seeking child cope.