Proprioception: The Sense That Keeps Us Balanced

 Keenan Blog

Proprioception: The Sense That Keeps Us Balanced

June 08, 2020

During most daily indoor activity, we are pretty good at keeping our balance. Then we go outside and encounter all kinds of changing terrain, uneven and loose surfaces, wet pavement and sometimes ice. At that point, we have to work a little harder to stay on our feet. When we add in more physical actions, like running, doing yardwork, carrying boxes or skiing, maintaining balance is a full-time effort.

Fortunately, our bodies have been equipped with three different systems that make nearly instantaneous adjustments for us to stay in balance. The primary way we do this is with our vision. We can see where up and down are, watch for changes in the ground and avoid upcoming obstacles. But even those with vision impairment or total blindness can still stay on their feet. That’s because we also have three semicircular canals in our inner ears that tell our brain where we are in three dimensions. This inner ear mechanism is called the vestibular system and those three canals are oriented vertically, horizontally and laterally so we can still tell our position when we can’t see for whatever reason. The vestibular system can be affected by conditions such as ear infections, and drug reactions that can cause dizziness and loss of balance. So, we have one more balancing backup, and it’s called proprioception.

Proprioception is a five-syllable word for a sixth sense we have to keep our balance by interacting directly with the environment around us. Whenever a part of your body is in contact with the ground (preferably your feet), or you are touching or leaning on another solid object, that interaction is sending information to the brain that helps it understand where you are located. In turn, the brain sends back messages to muscles and joints throughout the body to adjust to any perceived instability. Most of the time, proprioception works in coordination with the vision and vestibular system to stay balanced. Proprioception can still keep your body stable even when the other two systems are not providing your brain with information.

As people get older, balance can become a greater challenge. Vision changes and dizziness affect many seniors. The good news is that it’s possible to get better at proprioception! We began to develop proprioception all the way back when we learned to walk as babies. Improving proprioception is essential for those recovering from surgery or injuries that impair their walking and balance. Assistive devices like canes and walkers, while providing a degree of physical support, are mainly about interacting with the environment and transmitting information to the brain to remain stable.

If you are healthy, fit and don’t suffer balance issues, it’s not too soon to get your proprioception on. Activities like yoga do help develop this sense, but you can exercise proprioception (stand next to a stable counter you can reach when you need it) by simply lifting up each leg a few inches off the floor and balancing on the other leg for 30 seconds. If you start to feel wobbly, put your leg down and try again. Once that feels comfortable, close your eyes after you are stable on one foot. Tuning out vision emphasizes proprioception in doing these exercises to maintain balance. One physical therapist I know practices his proprioception at the bathroom counter each morning while brushing his teeth.

If you do have balance issues, please talk to your doctor about the best way to improve your situation. You may be referred to a physical therapist to address your condition, and proprioception training may be a part of that treatment.

Yes, proprioception is a big word that’s kind of awkward to pronounce, but now that you’ve learned it you know the importance of getting your body and your brain working together to keep active and balanced.

Sources: Primary source for this blog is an interview with Ross Sanchez, DPT, an experienced physical therapist in Albuquerque, NM.


About Dayna Gowan
Dayna Gowan is a Health Management Specialist within the KeenanWell Department. She consults with Keenan’s municipal and school clients in the development, strategic planning, coordination. and implementation of their population health management programs.