by Lizette Alexander OT Reg. (Ont), Director of Operations
The vestibular system and propioception are “senses” not generally taught in elementary school. Both these systems are not included in our stories of the five senses. Yet these two senses are crucial to both our abilities to move effectively and to regulate our behavior. These senses provide the foundation for later skill development, and should be considered when we are trying to gain a better understanding of a child’s strengths and weaknesses.
The vestibular system is a set of 3 semicircular tubes located on each side of the head in the inner ear. Each tube is filled with fluid that flows around the tubes as we move our head to look left or right or even upside down. The movement of the fluid within these tubes signal receptors, which send information to the brain on the position of the head and even acceleration and deceleration of your head movement. These tubes can also “feel” the pull of gravity.
Therefore the main function of the vestibular system is to tell the brain where your head is in space, it can also tell your brain how fast you are moving your head.
So how do our brain know where our body is space? This involves another system called Propioception. Propio in latin means “one’s own” and “ception” is short for perception or how we perceive our environment. When muscles in your body are stretched, receptors in the muscle send a signal to the brain telling it where your joints are in space. There are also receptors in your ligaments. Even your joints in your body have receptors that are activated when compressed. So when you move your arm, the joint is squished, and a signal is sent to the brain advising it of it’s position in space. Without proprioception a person would need to look at their finger in order to know that they were moving it. Propioception allows you to type or write without having to look at your hand. It allows you to break and accelerate a vehicle with your foot without have to look at the pedals.
When both systems are working well together, we are able to maintain an upright posture with ease. If these systems are not working well together you might have a child who appears to have poor balance or appear uncoordinated. Some children compensate for difficulties in these two areas by looking for for opportunities to jump, bump, and crash, in order to obtain the sensory input that they cannot because their receptors are not responding to regular levels of input. They might really like to be tightly wrapped in blankets or prefer really tight clothes and they might stomp their feet when walking.
A child with difficulties with the vestibular and/or propioceptive system might also have difficulty “grading” movement by misjudging how to move the arms or legs when performing an activity such as climbing or dressing. They might have a difficult time regulating the pressure on their pencil or they don’t seem to know their own strength and might either break toys by playing with them too aggressively. Or they just seem to use too much force in everything that they do, for example stomp when they walk, slam doors, press to hard when writing, or breaking toys. A child who is hypersensitive to movement may avoid activities such as swings, ladders, and slides on the playground. They might move slowly and cautiously and avoid taking risks. They might dislike the escalator or even stairs. They might be afraid of heights and an extreme reaction or anxiety when asked to participate in any of these activities.
Propioception is important for muscle memory and hand eye coordination, and as with many skills in life can improve with practice and exposure.
Obviously this is simplified explanation of the vestibular system and propioception. This blog is not mean to be a scientific discussion of the process. We hope that we’ve been able to provide our families with a basic description of what the propioceptive and vestibular system can do and its importance to participating in a students day to day tasks both at home and at school.