September 6, 2015 Ken O'Shea

Understanding Proprioception For Injury Prevention

If you’ve ever experienced a blackout, you’ve also probably done what we all have and slowly navigated your way to the candles, bumping into nearly everything in your path.

A possible reason for your hesitancy is that your brain was not getting enough information about its surroundings, and chances are you need to better utilize your proprioceptive awareness. Without vision and sound as your guide, you rely mostly on something called proprioception to gather that information. It’s not something we tend to consciously use often, so many of us become accustomed to depending on our vision instead. Developing proprioceptive awareness will not only help you become less klutzy, but it will also aid in sports performance and help you avoid injuries.

What is Proprioception?

Your proprioceptive system is composed of three parts: the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerve endings. Nerve endings give your brain a vast amount of information. They relay information to your brain about all parts of your body in relation to your current environment. Dr Eric Cobb, founder of Z Health Performance, likes to describe proprioception as the combination of signals from your nerve endings to your brain create a living, constantly changing 3D map of your own body in space and time inside your brain. Basically, this sense is what keeps you from running into everything and knocking things over. Having good proprioception is a key ability in everyday life and even more important in a performance setting.

The question then becomes if you are running into things and knocking them over, why are you not getting the necessary information to keep yourself safe and harm free? Simply put, the map in your head is not as clear as it should be. It is like waiting for Google Maps to finish buffering while you are driving and you end up missing your exit. When your brain does not get adequate information to predict how close you are to an object you will tendency to run into the object or knock it over. In order to protect itself when it doesn’t have a very good map, your brain will restrict your body’s movements. Your proprioceptive map will not allow your body to move in a certain direction because it is worried about getting injured and sends a pain signal in order to keep you from moving into a blurry area.

Your proprioception restricts your movement at times because they are designed to make sure you survive at all costs. Your brain, because it wants to survive, will keep you from moving into certain positions and directions because it wants to remain injury free, thus keeping you healthy and safe so you can thrive.

However, what if you could increase the information your brain receives from your body parts through training? With increased information, your brain can create a better map and allow for easier movement and predication. When the brain is less concerned about its survival, it will allow you to move more freely.

How Can You Improve Your Proprioception?

What if the next time you step off the curb wrong or come down on someone else’s foot you didn’t sprain your ankle? What if I told you that by practicing being in several ankle positions by utilizing mobility drills regularly you can retrain your brain to let your ankle touch the ground and just keep walking like nothing happened. This is completely possible.

By practicing mobility drills to improve your proprioception, your brain will allow the body to move better without pain. This change happens because the drills are designed to target your joints, which have a large number of nerve endings that help your brain get the information it needs to create the 3D of map of your body in space. By increasing the amount of information you are sending to your brain through specific drills that target these nerve endings, you are allowing your brain to get a clearer picture of its environment.

The brain is able to get the information it wants in a controlled, less threatening setting. With enough practice, it will incorporate the new information into your everyday life. Creating a clearer picture, in turn, allows you to move easier with more efficiency and better predictive capabilities. In fact, the only reason you sprained your ankle in the first place was because you had either never moved your ankle into that position under some kind of load, like your body weight, or you have never moved it as quickly into that position under load. Either way, both are trainable skills that you can utilize to not only keep yourself injury free but also improve your overall performance in everyday life or in a sports and performance setting.

Cobb, Eric W. Essentials of Elite Performance. N.p.: n.p., 2006. Z Health Performance. Web. Apr. 2015

The 6 High Payoff Drills:

  1. Medial and lateral Ankle Tilts
  2. 3 Position Toe Pulls
  3. Thoracic AP Glides
  4. Hand Figure 8’s
  5. 4 Position Hip Circles
  6. Wrist Circles
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Ken O'Shea

Ken is an American college of Sports Medicine (ACSM) Exercise Physiologist and Z health Practitioner. He has been training clients for over 5 years that vary in age from 10-81 and ability levels.