Proprioception and Maintaining Balance

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Proprioception is the sense of knowing your body's relative position in space. Often referred to as our sixth sense, proprioception allows us to move and navigate environments as we inherently "know" where our limbs, weight, and center of gravity are at any moment in time.

Proprioception is a coordinated neurologic and physiologic response facilitated by specialized nerves known as proprioceptors. These are the sensory receptors situated on the nerve endings of the inner ear, muscles, skin, joints, tendons, and other tissues. They relay information about our body's spatial position to the brain, the signals of which are translated into both large and subtle movements.

Thanks to proprioception, we can move without consciously focusing on where we are in space. Without it, we wouldn't be to type, dance, jump rope, or steer a bicycle or car.

Biology of Proprioception

Proprioception is the ability to move through a space without the need to see or feel every aspect of that movement.

The proprioceptors involve both exteroceptors (which sense stimuli originating from outside of the body, including pain, touch, vibration, temperature, and sound) and mechanoreceptors (which respond to external stimuli such as touch, pressure, and vibration). Together, they deliver millions of signals to the brain which direct not only our movements but many of our reflexes.

Proprioception also relies upon a coordinated response from both the inner ear (which is central to balance, motion, and orientation) and the muscles (which direct our stance and movements).

For its part, the inner ear contains structures, including the nonauditory labyrinth and vestibular organ, that are sensitive to acceleration, rotation, and orientation in a gravitational field.

The proprioceptors of the body are found primarily in the muscles, tendons, and skin. Among them:

  • Muscle spindles, also known as stretch receptors, are sensitive to changes in muscle length. These allow you to know when and how far to stretch your legs while walking or your arms when reaching.
  • Golgi tendon organs, found in the tendons, are sensitive to changes in muscle tension. They sense how much tension a muscle is exerting and what is needed to effect a movement with the appropriate amount of energy.
  • Pacinian corpuscles are situated in the skin and are responsible for detecting changes in pressure which the body reads as texture, temperature, and other sensations.

Proprioception and Reflexes

In addition to providing information about movement and position, proprioceptors can trigger certain protective responses such as the stretch reflex. This is the reflex in which a hyperextended muscle will automatically retract to protect itself.

There are also reflex arcs in which one movement will compensate for another to prevent injury.

One such example is stepping on something sharp like a nail or piece of glass. While the pain reflex will cause the injured foot to pull away, the body will counteract by shifting the center of gravity to the other foot while stabilizing your position with your arms. The complex reaction is sometimes referred to as a human antigravity reflex arc.

Improving Your Proprioception

While the eyes and ears also contribute to movement and balance, those senses are not considered components of proprioception since you can don't necessarily need them to be oriented in space.

With that being said, different people have different levels of proprioception in the same way that some people have better eye-hand coordination.

One such example is standing on one foot with your eyes shut. Some people can do this without impediment; others fall immediately. Age, injury, inner ear problems, alcohol, or a diminished neurologic response are just some of the reasons why proprioception may be compromised.

With that being said, the fact that you can practice and learn to stand on one foot with your eyes shut suggests that proprioception can be improved. The same applies to any activity for which you may be less coordinated, such as catching a ball or playing tennis. With practice, your body can adapt and expand its proprioceptive response to specific tasks.

Certain practices can help sharpen one's proprioception. Among them:

  • Alexander Technique is a practice designed to retrain habitual patterns of movement and posture by gaining awareness through mindful movements.
  • T'ai chi requires awareness about your posture and center of gravity as you slowly shift from one movement to the next.
  • Yoga also relies on balance and awareness of your core (known as "bandas") that provide you with your center of balance.

Other practices such as juggling and slacklining (walking on a slack tightrope) can finely tune proprioception to an extraordinary degree. Even with gym workouts, an exercise ball can improve proprioception by forcing you to constantly readjust your position to perform exercises usually done a stable position.

Proprioceptive exercises are commonly used for rehabilitation therapy, helping you relearn how to control the position of a joint after a serious injury.

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