Proprioception is the term for our body’s ability to recognize itself in space. Your brain is able to determine where the body is in relation to space in a matter of milliseconds as messages move throughout our central nervous system. All of this proprioception understanding is done without conscious thought, it’s something that our bodies have just learned to recognize over the years.
However, as we get older or as a result of injury or surgery, our natural proprioception can decrease, and that can put us at risk for another injury. Thankfully, physical therapy is one of the ways we can retrain the brain to recognize body parts in space and improve proprioception and balance. Below, we take a closer look at how physical therapy can improve your proprioception.
Proprioception and Physical Therapy
To get a better understanding of proprioception, we’ll use an example you can try at home. Stand in front of the bathroom mirror and close your eyes. Now, raise your right arm straight out to your side, then bend your elbow so that your forearm is sticking straight up. Now open your eyes. Your arm should be out to the side, forming a right angle at the elbow joint as your forearm extends upwards. You were able to make those motions and get into that formation without watching yourself perform those actions because your brain was able to recognize where body parts need to be in relation to itself and space in order to complete a task. It’s the same reason you don’t need to look where you’re stepping when you’re walking, because your body knows where it is in relation to space.
Your proprioception comes from the sensory nerve endings that provide crucial information to the brain. These nerves in your muscles and joints tell your brain what position they are in and how much stress they are absorbing, and through this your body almost instantaneously understands how these forces are affecting the body’s location in space. Problems can develop when these specialized nerve endings begin to function improperly, and that can happen as a result of:
- Joint or muscle injury
- Surgery, like a knee replacement operation
- After a neurological event like a stroke
- As a result of long period of immobilization (hospitalizations or casting, for example)
Any event that affects the sensory nerves or your brain’s ability to recognize these sensory signals can throw off your proprioception. Left untreated, this can lead to balance issues and increased fall risk, which can be especially dangerous for older individuals.
That’s where the physical therapy team at OrthoRehab Specialists comes in. We have a thorough understanding of how the brain and these nerves interact with one another, and we can help to strengthen this connection so your body has a better natural level of proprioception. Many of the exercises that help to improve proprioception may seem like they are balance-focused, but with good reason. In order to maintain your balance, your brain needs to be able to recognize your body’s positioning and how it’s handling stress, so oftentimes balance and proprioception training goes hand in hand.
Each group of exercises will be tailored to the individual and their specific condition. For example, we may prescribe some arm strength exercises for patients who are having difficulty handling utensils after a stroke, while we may run you through some one-legged standing exercises if you’re recovering after an ankle fracture or significant sprain. You may feel unsteady during these first few exercises, and that’s a good thing, because it shows that your body and brain are working hard to perform the desired movement. Over time, these movements will become easier and eventually, they may even become second nature.
So if you’ve been having balance issues or you just don’t have as much trust in your knee or ankle after an injury or surgery, reach out to the experienced physical therapy team at OrthoRehab Specialists today and let us work to improve your proprioception.
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