What is the proprioceptive sense and why is it important?

Grab an object, perhaps a water bottle or pen. Place it in front of you and touch the top with your eyes open. Now, close your eyes and try to find that same point again. There’s a good chance you can still do it.

Proprioception – also known as the sixth sense – refers to the body’s ability to perceive its position in space without the help of vision. Proprioceptors are the sensors located in the joints, muscles and skin and they connect through the nervous system and send messages to the brain to tell you about your body’s place in the world.

It’s the sense that helps you navigate the way from your bedroom to the bathroom in pitch black and know which foot is in front of the other, how your body balances while walking and where your arms and hands are as you move through the rooms.

If you are on the uneven bars and you want to reach for the low bar, you can judge how much force and speed is needed to reach it accurately and how tightly you need to grip so you don’t fall. Or you can twirl a ribbon with one hand while performing other complex movements because your body is aware of where your limbs are simultaneously, although performing different movements. Outside the gym, this sense helps you know how far to step down off a curb, kick a ball without looking at your whole leg or throw a ball without watching your arm.

Proprioception is vital for everyone – athlete or otherwise, says Everyday Independence Physiotherapist Bentley Grattan.

Impaired proprioception can increase one’s risk of injuries and can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

- Being clumsy, unbalanced and uncoordinated leading to falls, bumps and dropping things
- Misjudging force and muscle extension when throwing, grabbing, kicking, pushing and more
- A lack of desire to participate in sports or physical exertion
- Poor postural control
- Sensory seeking behaviour

Proprioception is closely related kinaesthesia and the vestibular system – which all work together to inform our movements, help us stabilise and move through the gym and wider world.

How is this knowledge useful?

“Learning about how our body works can help us understand ourselves and others,” the Everyday Independence physiotherapist said. 
“It helps us to know the underlying reason why someone might be struggling and how to go about helping them overcome their difficulties. People from all different stages in life, abilities and skill-levels participate in gymnastics.”

Stay tuned for: Proprioceptive exercises and how gymnastics helps develop this important system