The Proprioceptive System

Jun 5, 2016

In past blogs, we have discussed the importance of a child to learn self-regulation as a goal of following a sensory lifestyle. This is achieved through the different sensory systems of the human body. In our last article, the vestibular system was covered. This article will discuss the importance of the system that helps us detect where our body is in space and how we are moving. We will also offer ideas and ways to help your child use this system for better development.

The proprioceptive system is a series of sensory receptors in our joints and muscles. When stimulated by pressure or movement, they send messages to the brain to help us know what’s happening, where our body is in space, if our body parts are bent or straight, if we are standing on a flat or bumpy surface. You can close your eyes yet still know if you are sitting down, if your hand is open or fisted, if your feet are stepping forward. Those are your proprioceptors giving you the information. Imagine if this system was not working properly. How would your coordination be? Probably not so good. You may not know how to judge properly how heavy something was and would either use too much or too little force to lift it. Just walking across a playground could be challenging.

Children with problems with the proprioceptive system may appear less coordinated. They may approach new activities with fear or with difficulty navigating them. Sometimes these children love to “crash” into things more than others, doing it over and over again. Some love to play in front of a mirror watching themselves carefully because they are not getting this information in the traditional way. Does he crush a paper cup by accident, break pencils because of too much pressure, play or hug too roughly? Maybe she writes very lightly, tends to be clumsy, likes to touch the wall when walking down the hall or even falls out of chairs. Either way, some added proprioceptive input is the way to go. And one of the great things about it is that you can give as much as you like throughout the day.

For proprioceptive activities, think push-pull-carry, anything that will stimulate the muscles and joints, heavy work. It is very easy to work this kind of activity into the day. Household chores such as carrying and putting away groceries, wearing a backpack with a little weight to it, having your child open doors for you, pulling a wagon, jumping on a trampoline, crawling along the floor with a toy, fitting snap beads together. Really anything that requires your child to put forth some effort, some muscle work will have a proprioceptive component.

In our last article, we mentioned that proprioceptive activity is recommended following vestibular stimulation to help calm and organize your child. It is a system that has global effects on the brain, helping it not only to better detect the joints and muscles, but to help the person better understand their own body. We each form a type of  “map” of our body in our brains, which helps us better to move and to understand where we are in relation to other objects and people. With each stimulation of the proprioceptors, our brain is better able to form the details of this body map, and this is translated in much better coordination and ability to handle new situations. Our judgment is improved, and we are much safer. The last point to be made is how calming the proprioceptive system can be. Think about a really good hug when you need one and how you feel during and after. Swaddling an upset baby or wearing them against your body in a tight cloth tends to calm and soothe her. These include proprioceptive stimulation. Your therapist can teach you techniques that are recommended for your child’s specific needs. Look around the TCTCI clinic and notice the many crash pads, the ball pit, the trampoline, the scooterboards and the many apparatuses to climb on. All kinds of proprioceptive activities are incorporated into your child’s therapy sessions to help him learn about his body and to provide the stimulation he needs and seeks.

Written By: Nancy Weiss, MOT, OTR/L

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