A major function of the human brain is being able to perceive where the body is in space. This is called proprioception. This happens at conscious and subconscious levels and is often referred to as the “6th sense”. The information conveyed between your body and your brain is crucial to allow you to interact appropriately with your environment with minimal consequences. No two human beings perceive or interact with the environment in the exact same way which means each person’s sense of self is unique to that individual.
Your proprioception, or sense of self, is calculated by our musculoskeletal system: the bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia of the body. The amount of stretch, bend, range of motion, stiffness, tension, is relayed by these tissues which impacts your coordination and ability (or inability) to complete complex tasks accurately.
A complicated math problem occurs when your body is at rest, to calculate the force of gravity, how to combat that force, and still go about our day. It allows you to sit still at a computer and, without using your eyes or turning your head, sense your arm in order to reach over for a glass of water. You have to know precisely when to grip the glass and how hard to squeeze without shattering it. You have to contract some muscles and relax others to move your arm and bring the glass to your mouth to take a sip without spilling. What a symphony!
Orchestration of any movement comes down to your brain’s ability to correct errors or discrepancies between where it perceives a body part to be and where it actually is. This conversation gives our brain the following information: Is the head is straight ahead or tilted slightly? Are the eyes able to compensate for any change in head position in order to maintain a level sight line? How far does the head need to turn to avoid an impending collision? What is the tone of the calf muscles in a sport that requires rapid shifting movements and how can the core muscles be recruited to accelerate without causing injury? The list goes on.
Proprioception intimately cross-references information received by the vestibular system (our equilibrium center) and our visual system to coordinate appropriate head, neck & eye movements in relation to the environment. When all of these systems agree with what each other is saying, walking down the street while talking with someone is easy as can be. However, if the proprioceptive system is incorrect in its awareness of neck muscle tone, it may have a discrepancy that causes the other two systems to work on faulty information.
Proprioceptive insults, or deficits, can commonly contribute to symptoms such as muscle/joint pain, stiffness, dizziness, numbness, balance issues, dystonic movement disorders, recurring injuries to a body part, poor postures due to abnormal biomechanical loads and many more! A study in 2017 used seemingly “healthy” subjects which were found to have altered spatial awareness by removing the vestibular and visual systems. By utilizing vibration to stimulate the proprioceptive system, they were able to improve spatial awareness (1). Since these systems are interconnected, they often can be used cohesively to recalibrate each other
Malmström E-M, Fransson P-A, Bruinen TJ, Facic S, Tjernström F. Disturbed cervical proprioception affects perception of spatial orientation while in motion. Experimental Brain Research. 2017;235(9):2755-2766.