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Vestibular System and Proprioception: The Two Unknown Senses

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Sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch are the five senses most commonly identified. But did you know that there are two more senses that affect our ability to interact with the environment?

Proprioception and vestibular systems largely impact our development and are typically unknown or forgotten. This is important because our sensory system affects the way we interact with our environment, whether it's at school, work, or home.

We use our senses to perceive and understand the world around us. Our brain then processes that information to tell our body how to respond. When there is a disruption in that process, our ability to complete everyday activities becomes much harder.

The vestibular system, also known as our balance center, is responsible for receiving information regarding our bodies movement in space, as well as, acceleration and deceleration of movement. The receptors in this system are located in the inner ear and are stimulated by changes in head position.

If you think your child may have difficulties with sensory processing, schedule an appointment with a pediatrician today.

Proprioception informs us of our body position in space. The receptors for this system are found in our muscles and joints and they send information to our brain about where our body is and how much force we are using. Proprioception is important in building body awareness and achieving motor milestones.

Below are red flags for "the two unknown" senses, as well as how occupational therapy can help.

Red flags for difficulty with vestibular processing:

  • Dislikes or seeks out activities requiring feet to leave the ground
  • Moving slowly or cautiously; Frequent motion sickness or dizziness
  • Appearing to never become dizzy with excessive spinning
  • Poor safety awareness or impulsive jumping, running and/or climbing
  • Dislikes/prefers changes in positions
  • Rocking, spinning, twirling, or frequent head tilting

Red flags for difficulty with proprioceptive processing:

  • Frequent crashing, bumping, climbing, falling, or jumping
  • Frequent kicking while sitting or stomping feet while walking
  • Enjoys deep pressure or being "squished"; Prefers tight clothing
  • Uses too much force when writing or coloring
  • Plays too rough with other children
  • Misjudges the amount of force required to pick up objects

It is important to understand that everyone has sensory preferences or different tolerances to specific input. Recognizing a sensory processing difficulty may occur when a child is significantly limited or unable to participate in his or her daily life, whether it is in self-care skills or playing at the park.

Occupational therapists can help by identifying how your child is interpreting and responding to sensory information. The goal of an occupational therapist is to work with the child and the family to foster appropriate responses and increase his or her engagement with his or her sensory environment in a fun and active way!

If you have any concerns that your child may have difficulties with sensory processing, please let your pediatrician know for the appropriate referral.

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