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Proprioception: What Is It? (And 8 Signs of Dysfunction)

Jul 05th, 2022 | by Katie Dahlerbruch, OTD, OTR/L

Katie Dahlerbruch, OTD, OTR/L

July 05th, 2022

Most people are familiar with the five main senses: touch (tactile sense), hearing (auditory sense), sight (visual sense), smell (olfactory sense), and taste (gustatory sense). Often less discussed, but equally as important, are the senses related to gravity and movement (vestibular sense) and position and movement of muscles and joints (proprioceptive sense). Sensory integration theories highlight how both the vestibular and proprioceptive senses are foundational to an individual’s development.

What is Proprioception?

Proprioception, in particular, plays a key role in body awareness and understanding one’s position in space. Our proprioceptors in the body detect changes in movement or position, and further inform the brain about any changes in muscle tension or force. Proprioception allows automaticity in everyday movements, such as taking steps without the need to look at your feet and the ability to navigate rooms while in the dark. The proprioceptive system, additionally, informs oral motor function and one’s ability to move food in the mouth and appropriately chew.

Proprioception Dysfunction: Signs to Look For

What may it look like when children have proprioceptive dysfunction or poor proprioceptive processing? The child may:

  1. Use too much or too little force when writing, giving high-fives, or throwing balls
  2. Drop or spill items
  3. Appear “clumsy,” often falling or bumping into people or objects
  4. Have a preference for crashing into things
  5. Be overactive, preferring to run between locations
  6. Have a preference for tight hugs or tight clothing
  7. Play rough with peers
  8. Have a preference for crunchy, chewy foods

Occupational therapists can help to improve impaired proprioception by providing opportunities for “heavy work” which provide intense input to the muscles and joints. Proprioceptive input is also one of the main regulators in the body, which means it helps to calm an active nervous system and can help to organize a child if they feel overstimulated by an environment. Proprioceptive input can enhance attention and focus and can be an effective strategy to regulate and prepare a child for activities throughout the day.

Examples of Proprioception Heavy Work Include:

  • Climbing-based obstacle courses
  • Wheelbarrow walks
  • Pushing, pulling, or carrying weighted objects
  • Doing the monkey bars or hanging from a trapeze
  • Jumping and crashing activities

Other Ways That Provide Increased Proprioceptive Input Throughout the Body:

  • Using dot markers or putty while at the table
  • Eating crunchy snacks
  • Chewing gum
  • Sucking on a lollipop or sucking thick liquid through a straw

The above activities are general and not curated for individual needs. If you suspect your child may have challenges with proprioceptive processing, or sensory progressing in general, talk with an occupational therapist to determine the activities that may best support your child.

Find Additional Therapist-Recommended Activities in the NAPA Blog:

About the Author

Katie Dahlerbruch is a pediatric occupational therapist at NAPA Center Los Angeles. As a Los Angeles native, she loves soaking up time in the sun and enjoying picnics year-round. When not having fun working with kids, she is checking out new restaurants and exploring local neighborhoods with friends and family.

About NAPA Center

At NAPA Center, we take an individualized approach to therapy because we understand that each child is unique with very specific needs. We embrace differences with an understanding that individualized programs work better. For this reason, no two therapeutic programs are alike. If your child needs our services, we will work closely with you to select the best therapies for them, creating a customized program specific to your child’s needs and your family’s goals. Let your child’s journey begin today by contacting us to learn more.

TAGS: Blogs, OT
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