Loss of Proprioception

What is Loss of Proprioception?

Before describing the condition, we need to address proprioception in the following ways:

  • Why proprioception matters
  • Conscious proprioception
  • Unconscious proprioception
  • Whether you can lose your sense of proprioception
  • Signs of loss of proprioception
  • Conditions that can cause loss of proprioception
  • How loss of proprioception is treated

What Is Proprioception and Why It Matters

In short, proprioception is a word used to describe the sense of ourselves, where our limbs are and what our body is doing. That may seem like a pretty confusing definition. However, this little experiment will help you to understand the concept better.

Try This

Close your eyes and become comfortable in the spot you are standing. Stretch your hands above your head. Do not move your hands and do not wiggle or tap your fingers. Make sure that you keep your eyes completely closed. Bring your right hand down and touch the tip of your nose. bring your right hand back up and touch the thumb on your left hand. Bring your left hand down to touch the tip of your nose, bring it back up and touch your right thumb.

Continue touching your nose and then your thumb while alternating hands, and using each finger on each hand. You will notice that performing this task with certain fingers is more difficult than it is with others. You will also notice that the more you experiment with this exercise, the easier it becomes.

So, if you just did this in a room full of people, look around and enjoy the strange glances you just received. Even though people are looking at you strangely, you just grasped a concept that most people never think to investigate. Now you know that proprioception is the word associated with the various parts of your body knowing where everything else is.

Conscious Proprioception Verses Unconscious Proprioception

There are two main types of proprioception, conscious and unconscious. So what is the difference?

The experiment that you just preformed is a perfect explanation of conscious proprioception. Unconscious proprioception can best be explained by our ability to carry out everyday tasks, like driving. If we were to use conscious proprioception, driving would be impossible.

Just imagine trying to focus all of your attention on the steering wheel, the brake, the gas pedal, indicators inside of your car, indicators outside of your car, traffic, and the road ahead of you. Situations like this require unconscious proprioception because if you focus all of your attention on one task, you would be ignoring the others, which puts you and your family in danger.

Can You Lose Your Proprioception?

The majority of the human population grows up fine tuning their proprioception. However, there are situations where people can lose part, or all of their proprioception. In the world today, there are six documented cases where patients have lost all sense of proprioception.

The majority of cases where full proprioception is lost are caused by an untreated viral infection that rapidly grew out of control. This viral infection damaged some nerves while completely destroying others. These patients may be able to walk, but they are completely unaware of where their feet are, or whether they are even touching the ground. Even though walking is possible, it is dangerous. They are unable to tell where their arms are in the space around them, or even if their feet and arms are moving in the right direction.

What are the Symptoms of Loss of Proprioception?

Conditions that Can Cause Loss of Proprioception

Currently, there are 12 known medical conditions that cause varying degrees of loss of proprioception, such as below:

Being intoxicated from drinking too much alcohol can cause a loss of proprioception. This is why police officers use field sobriety tests to determine whether someone is too intoxicated to drive. The tests given in a sobriety test are used to determine whether a person has an acceptable degree of sensation to determine where certain body parts are in relation to other parts of their body. Unless there is a health condition present that limits the ability, someone who is sober should have proprioception that falls within the normal limits.

Commonly Impaired Areas – Symptoms

Loss of proprioception comes in a lot of forms. Even though it comes in different forms, it also affects each individual uniquely as well. Even though there are unique affects for each person affected, there are also generalized impairments that can be expected. The impairments usually occur in one or more of the following locations:

  • Motor Planning Deficiency: One form of loss of proprioception causes an impairment of motor movement planning. Patients who suffer from this type of loss of proprioception struggle to conceptualize and manipulate their body to perform the movements to carry out tasks. For example, while they are sitting in a chair, maneuvering their arm to the side in an effort to grab a glass of water, close their hand around the glass, and then direct it back to their body in order to take a drink, can be extremely difficult.
  • Motor Control: With this type of loss of proprioception, the person is easily able to decide what they want to do. The difficult part is determining how to maneuver their body in the right way. For example, they may be able to grab an item off of a flat surface, however, maneuvering their arm back to their body is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
  • Grading Movement and Pressure: People who suffer from this type of loss of proprioception find it difficult to develop and maintain the proper amount of pressure when holding an object. Since they are unable to control how tightly they are holding something, they could be grasping the item too tightly, or not tightly enough.
  • Controlling Postural Stability: This form of loss of proprioception affects the person physically, and mentally. This is because the condition causes a significant impairment in the muscles that control posture. Because of this, achieving the right posture, and maintaining it, can be extremely difficult. This problem can occur as they are sitting down, or while they are standing up. This can greatly affect a person’s sense of security. Many of patients who suffer from this specific type of loss of proprioception also have a form of sensory processing disorder.
  • Under-responsive: In cases of under responsive proprioception, the brain does not effectively process the sensory input it receives. People with this disorder do not experience the sensory input they receive on a daily basis at the same degree as the rest of the population. Because of this, they feel the need to constantly move, and possibly may have the need for frequent physical contact. They may also be unaware of various sensations on the skin, such as a sticker on their arm, or sauce on their cheek. They may also be extremely fond of jumping for long durations of time, wrestling with peers, wearing tight clothing, situations that place pressure on their body – such as being wrapped tightly in a blanket, have difficulty with fine motor skills, and appear stiff and uncoordinated during movement. Children who suffer from this condition, may appear extremely hyper, crash through items, and register pain at a much lower scale than others, or may not register pain at all.
  • Over Responsive: This loss of proprioception is the polar opposite of the one we just covered. The sensory information that is taken in is perceived as more intense by the brain than someone with a normal reaction. People who suffer from this disorder are not fond of being touched. Many of them also avoid specific textures or sensations. Because of the way their brain and nervous system responds, they are known to exhibit a negative reaction to the slightest touch. Frequently in patients who are proprioception over responsive have poor, or limited, awareness of the location of their limbs. They also appear to be very tense, rigid, and may move around in an uncoordinated manner. Due to the texture and sensation sensitivities they suffer from, many are extremely picky eaters.
  • Regulation Input Difficulty: In this condition, the patient’s brain is unable to quickly, and accurately evaluate a situation. The amount of force they use is usually not appropriate. They are not aware of how rough, or soft they are being. They may push a door too hard, nor not hard enough to open it. They also have significant difficulty judging the weight of an object.

Loss of Proprioception Causes

A loss of proprioception is occasionally hereditary but most often it is the result of numerous musculoskeletal diseases. The most common causes can be arthritis, muscular sclerosis, head trauma, brain surgery, alcohol and drug abuse, cerebral palsy, a brain tumor, malformation during gestation, exposure to toxic chemicals and even from an infectious disease like chicken pox. However, if an infectious disease is the underlying cause, loss of proprioception usually goes away once the infection has cleared.

How is Loss of Proprioception Treated?

Treatment for loss of proprioception depends on the specific type, and the trigger activity that caused it to develop. Usually, it involves treating the underlying condition and gaining control over it first. Once the underlying condition is under control, physical therapy is used to retrain the nerves, muscles, and brain receptors, to respond appropriately.

Not every person who receives physical therapy treatment will experience full recovery of the condition. However, working with a physiotherapist on a regular basis can help dramatically reduce the symptoms experienced, and help the patient to regain their proprioception.

Loss of Proprioception Prevention

A loss of proprioception is usually not preventable because it occurs as a symptom from an underlying condition. Additionally, it is considered incurable but there are several treatment methods available to reduce and minimize symptoms. Therapy is one of the most common treatment methods, depending on the type of loss that is present in the patient. Physical therapy is ideal to help patients maintain strength and increase mobility. For patients needing assistance navigating around the home and in daily life, occupational therapy helps to provide accessibility adjustments in the home, especially in the kitchen or bathroom. This may also include a wheelchair assessment to ease mobility.

In some cases loss of proprioception can inhibit speech and speech therapy is required to assist patients with regaining oral control or in using speech aids. The loss of motor function is not only physically debilitating but can also have psychological effects. In these cases, counseling is encouraged to help patients cope with their condition and the potential limitations it creates in their lives. Some patients that experience loss of proprioception have nutritional deficiencies and are often prescribed nutritional supplements or given a special diet to address these issues. And finally because patients with the condition may also have compromised immune systems or experience uncontrollable muscle spasms, physicians often prescribe medications to boost immunity or to minimize muscle spasms.

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Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
March 12, 2018