Put your hands beneath the table where you can’t see them. Now make a fist with your left hand and grab that fist with your right hand. Switch hands and repeat. Pretty easy, right? It wouldn’t be easy or even possible without proprioception, a sense we may never think about but use every day.
What It Is
An official definition of proprioception is your “ability to sense the position and location, orientation, and movement of the body and its parts.”¹ Some researchers have winnowed down the definition to strictly apply to the conscious and subconscious sensing of your joint positions and movement.² ³
Proprioception lets you know how your body is positioned and what it’s doing at all times, without looking at it and without necessarily thinking about it. Theory says the sense is made possible through a complex signaling system in our bodies, composed of fibrous tissues and their structures that work in conjunction with our nervous system.¹
Professional athletes, ballet dancers and others who train their bodies for high performance typically have an enhanced sense of proprioception due to their training.⁴ ⁵ Yet proprioception seems to have biological constraints, meaning that no amount of training can enhance this sense above the level with which we’re born.⁴
Why It’s Important
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to illustrate why proprioception matters is to look at what happens when you don’t have it. Proprioception automatically declines as you get older, right along with your vision and equilibrium, the three main components of upright posture and balance.⁶ The loss of proprioception that hits the knees, ankles and hips makes it tougher to stabilize yourself while moving or even while standing, making you prone to falls and injury.⁶
The loss of proprioception in your upper extremities decreases your ability to accurately move your arms and hands for eating, grabbing objects or conscious or subconscious gestures you use while speaking.⁷
What Happens When It Totally Fails Us
While age-related loss of proprioception in certain bodily areas can lead to a slow decline in the ability to properly stand, walk, balance, gesture and generally move around, the sudden loss of proprioception can result in a veritable horror story. Such was the case with a man named Ian Waterman.⁷ At age 19, Waterman suffered a total loss of proprioception from the neck down, a result of an undiagnosed fever thought to have triggered a reaction to his auto-immune system.
The sudden loss of proprioception left Waterman unable to move at all. Even though his motor system was still intact and he suffered no paralysis, he had absolutely no control over anything his body did. He could no longer eat, grab or move objects, stand or sit upright.
Rather than conceding to the medical prediction that he’d spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, Waterman instead designed his own rigorous movement practice using his thoughts and vision. After 30 years of his self-imposed rigorous training, Waterman can again walk, albeit with a lumbering gait, and can move his upper extremities in a way that looks natural. This is only possible when he can see what his body is doing; without vision he has no clue.
How to Enhance It
Multi-sensory balance training has been shown to enhance proprioception, and you can start your own routine with wobble boards, foam rollers or even playing balance-enhancing video games such as the Nintendo Wii Fit Plus.⁸ ⁹ Pilates, Foundation Training and other exercise programs that pay acute attention to balance and posture can help, as can increasing muscle strength.¹⁰ High levels of high-intensity exercises have also been shown to beat out infrequent, moderate exercise for improving proprioception by helping to enhance neurosensory processing.¹¹
Check out the real-life case of Ian Waterman
Van der Wal J. Proprioception. In: Schliep R, Findley T, Chaitow L, Huijing P, eds. Fascia: The Tensional Network of the Human Body: The science and clinical applications in manual and movement therapy. 1st ed. London: Churchill Livingstone; 2012: 81-87.
Skoglund S. Joint receptors and kinaesthesis. In: Iggo, A, ed. Handbook of Sensory Physiology. Vol. 2. Springer Verlag; 1973:111-136.
Fix JD. Neuroanatomy. Hagerstown, MD; 2002.
Han J, Waddington G, Anson J, Adams R. Level of competitive success achieved by elite athletes and multi-joint proprioceptive ability. J Sci Med Sport. 2013.
Kiefer A, Riley M, Shockley K, Sitton C, Hewett T, Cummins-Sebree S, et al. Lower-limb Proprioceptive Awareness in Professional Ballet Dancers. J Dance Med Sci. 2013;17(3):126-132.
Wingert J, Welder C, Foo P. Age-Related Hip Proprioception Declines: Effects on Postural Sway and Dynamic Balance. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2013.
McNeill D, Quaeghebeur L, Duncan S. IW—“the man who lost his body.” In: Gallagher S, Schmickin D, eds. Handbook of Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences, Springer; 2008.
Gioftsidoua A, Vernadakisa N, Mallioua P, Batziosa S, Sofokleousa P, Antonioua P, et al. Typical balance exercises or exergames for balance improvement? J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2013;26:299-305.
Kristinsdottir E, Baldursdottir B. Effect of multi-sensory balance training for unsteady elderly people: pilot study of the “Reykjavik model.” Disabil Rehabil. 2013.
Bijlsma A, Pasma J, Lambers D, Stijntjes M, Jan Blauw G, Meskers C, et al. Muscle Strength Rather Than Muscle Mass Is Associated With Standing Balance in Elderly Outpatients. JAMDA.2013;14:493-498.
Courtney C, Rine RM, Jenk D, Collier PD, Waters A. Enhanced Proprioceptive Acuity at the Knee in the Competitive Athlete. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2013;43(6):422-426.