Recently, I was asked to present a talk about proprioception at a conference dedicated to "Neurological Issues in Clinical Practice for Veterinary Physiotherapists", hosted by Westville Therapy. It was a very enjoyable experience for me. I use a lot of proprioceptive training aids during my therapy sessions and after giving the talk I decided that, as well as being useful for fellow veterinary physiotherapists, this kind of information would be useful for my clients and other dog owners.
So, what is proprioception?
Proprioception is term given to describe the body's ability to to sense and interpret stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and balance. It is a complicated multi-component feedback system made up of a range of receptors in the skin, muscle, tendons, ligaments, and joints, sensory and motor nerves, parts of the brain, and components of the visual and vestibular systems.
Proprioception allows us to know where our body parts are in space without having to look, and lets us, for example, walk and move without watching our feet constantly. It is important in all everyday movements, but especially so in complicated movements where precise coordination is necessary, such as jumping correctly over a jump. It allows for appropriate actions to be taken in a multitude of different situations.
If we, or our dogs or cats, suffer from a loss of proprioception it can have a number of negative effects on how we move and react to changes in our environment. For example, your dog may not be able to react and adjust their body in time if they land incorrectly over a jump, or after jumping to catch a ball which can then lead to injury.
What causes proprioceptive loss and what does it look like?
Proprioceptive loss can happen due to whole variety of reasons, such as neurological conditions (e.g. degenerative disc disease, spondylosis), disease (e.g. diabetes), trauma/injury or due to surgery.
Deficits in proprioception can be acute or chronic depending on the cause. If your dog or cat experiences some type of injury/trauma it can cause the deficit to appear suddenly. However, if your pet has a degenerative condition, the symptoms may be subtle to being but then worsen as time progresses.
Signs of proprioceptive loss can vary from subtle signs such as a slight loss of precision movement or loss in performance to more obvious ones such as knuckling over of the paws (image 1), scuffing of the paws, wounds or calluses on the top of the paws (image 2) or abnormal nail wear (image 3) resulting from the knuckling/scuffing. More severe signs are altered body awareness, lack of balance, staggering or even loss of function.
What are the aims of proprioceptive rehabilitation / training
1. Increase sensory awareness
2. Improve neuromuscular responsiveness
3. Improve control and learning of movement patterns
These can all lead to improved function, better coordination, balance and flexibility, which all allow for quicker reactions to changes in body position and movement, therefore reduced the risk of injury / re-injury.
Proprioceptive training can also lead to an increase in mental focus and confidence thus improving mental well-being.
Proprioceptive rehabilitation / training techniques
In my therapy sessions I use a whole range of techniques and exercises that are aimed at improving proprioception. These include manual therapies, sensory integration aids and proprioceptive exercises.
Manual therapies and the use of sensory integration aids are both aimed at increasing sensory awareness and increasing the input of a whole variety of sensations into the body in order to stimulate as many of the proprioceptive receptors as possible. Examples include tapotement (light fast rhythmical massage techniques), passive joint exercises, paw squeezes, using different grooming brushes, using heat and cold techniques, and using massagers (such as in the image below where I am using a vibrating massager to stimulate the nerves in the cats paw).
Proprioceptive exercises are slow, precise, controlled exercises that either require an awareness of limb position in space (e.g. bending and turning exercises), involve walking over difference surfaces, challenge the body's balance or a combination of all three. Some examples can be seen in the images below.
The exact treatment options chosen will depend on the cause of the proprioceptive loss, how much function your pet has, if your pet has any other medical issues and your pets temperament.
Can healthy animals benefit from proprioceptive training?
Yes! Puppies can benefit from doing proprioceptive exercises as they develop, helping them to learn control over their body movements, reducing the risk of injury and improving their confidence.
Similarly, adult sporting animals such as agility dogs can benefit from the ability to react faster, the reduced risk of injury and the improved confidence and mental focus that comes from proprioceptive training.
If you wish to find out more, or if you would like to book your cat or dog in for a physiotherapy session, please do get in touch.