Examples of Proprioception in Physical Therapy

If you have been injured or ill and are having difficulty with normal functional mobility, you may benefit from physical therapy to help you recover fully and return to your normal activities. Your physical therapist will likely work with you to improve your range of motion (ROM) and strength and work to get you feeling better and moving better.

Woman leaning on ballet barre
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Your PT may also work with you to improve your balance and proprioception. Balance is easy to understand – it is your body's ability to stay upright in a standing or seated position. But what is proprioception and what are some examples of proprioception and how it is used in physical therapy?

Proprioception is your body's ability to know where it is in the environment. It allows you to move freely without having to consciously think about each and every move you make. 

How Does Proprioception Work?

There are specialized nerve endings in your body's joints and muscles that communicate information to your brain about the different positions your joints and muscles are in. Some of the nerve endings tell your brain what position a certain muscle or joint is in, and others tell your brain how the muscle is moving and how fast it is moving. This information allows your brain to understand where your body parts are without actually having to look at that body part.

Examples of Proprioception

The best way to understand proprioception is to learn about examples of proprioception. Here are a few examples of the way your body understands where it is in space:

First, sit in front of a mirror. Close your eyes and lift your arm out to the side so it is parallel to the floor. Then bend your elbow 90 degrees. Now open your eyes and check the mirror. Your arm should be out to the side and bent 90 degrees with your hand straight up towards the ceiling.

How did that happen? How were you able to put your arm in the correct position without looking at it? The specialized nerve endings in your body communicate to your brain the position of your arm. Your brain was then able to position it properly without you even looking at it.

Here's another fun experiment to see an example of proprioception first hand. Recruit a friend or family member to help you. Kick off your shoe and sit in a chair with your leg out straight. Have your friend grasp your foot and hold it steady. Keep your eyes closed, and have your friend flex your ankle up or down. Whenever your friend moves your ankle, report back to him or her if your foot was moved up or down.

Each time your partner moves your ankle, the specialized nerve endings in your foot and ankle told your brain that your foot was moving. Proprioception allowed you to sense the changing position of your foot and respond appropriately to that change.

Proprioception in Physical Therapy

Many times after injury, illness, or surgery you may need to work with a physical therapist to help you regain normal mobility. Working to improve your proprioception may be a component of your rehab program. Just about everyone could benefit from proprioception and balance training. Some specific injuries or problems that typically require proprioception training may include:

  • For neurological conditions like stroke, Parkinson's disease, or multiple sclerosis
  • After upper extremity or lower extremity fracture
  • After knee, hip, or ankle surgery
  • After any period of immobilization

Your physical therapist can perform lower extremity and balance functional tests to assess your proprioception, and he or she can prescribe the best exercises for you to do to improve your proprioception.

Some exercises that may help improve your proprioception may include:

  • The T-Stance Balance Exercise
  • The BAPS Board
  • Single leg standing on different surfaces
  • The dynamic isometric shoulder stability exercise

When thinking about therapeutic exercise in a physical therapy program, many people think about improving strength or range of motion. But working to improve your balance and proprioception may be the key to having a successful rehab outcome and returning to your normal health after injury or surgery.

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.