Ever wonder how you’re able to type without looking at the keyboard? Or kick a ball without staring directly down at your feet? Our bodies are laced with hundreds of specialized sensors that help tell us where our limbs are in space. These sensors lie within our skin, muscles, and joints and play a big role in performance and injury prevention. They create a sensation called Proprioception.
Proprioception is a catch all term for your body’s spatial awareness. These sensory receptors help to determine the position of the joint, the amount of muscle recruitment (or strength) that is needed for the task at hand, and the velocity (or speed) that will be required (1). Though there is sometimes a conscious effort to movement, proprioception helps to complete the task without you having to focus on every little movement that must take place. This is especially important in sport where quick, coordinated movements are needed to progress the game, change direction, and fire muscles quickly enough to get out of the way when needed.
So what happens to this system when injury occurs? Research has shown that overstretched ligaments and muscles that occur during injury cause reduction in proprioceptive accuracy compared to the uninjured limb. In short, your body has reduced its ability to correctly determine where the injured body part is compared to the rest of your body. This becomes a vicious cycle because reduced proprioception further increases risk for injury, specifically increasing the risk of sprained joints in running and cutting sports (2).
If proprioception is so important, how do we improve the function of these receptors? Practice! Just like specific training can improve strength and flexibility, proprioception can improve with specialized training, too. To train these sensory receptors, one needs to challenge the joint on an unstable surface. For example, when working on an ankle sprain, training balance on a foam pad, bosu ball, or rocker board can be used. Progressing from static to dynamic activities on these surfaces can help retrain the sensory receptors to better do their job. Because these receptors are needed often throughout the day, training these receptors to tolerate long duration activities is best. For example, first balancing on one foot for 30secs on foam while working up to 1 minute durations (2).
Upper extremity injuries need to train proprioception, too! Using a body blade or manual joint setting in various positions can wake up these sensory receptors and help your body relearn where that injured joint is in space. Weight bearing exercise can also be performed on an unstable surface such as holding a push up position on a bosu ball.
At AKPT, we also train neck proprioception after concussions or other cervical injuries using a laser hat as an external stimuli. Using these techniques, our athletes have greater improvements in body positioning and injury reduction when returning back to sport.
If you are a loved one has had a recent injury, don’t brush it off! Even if you feel like it could heal on its own, you may have unknowingly damaged sensory receptors that can impact your performance and set up you up for further injury. Let AKPT help you return to joints to their full potential!