The Sixth and Seven Senses: The Vestibular and Proprioceptive Systems

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We are all familiar with the sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch as the five senses. However, there are two more senses that don’t typically get mentioned in school — the sixth and seventh senses – that are called the vestibular and proprioceptive systems. These systems are associated with body movement and can lead to difficulties with balance when they don’t work correctly.

The proprioceptive system provides information to the brain about the body’s position in relation to the environment (which direction you are facing, for example, or how close you are to obstacles). The proprioceptive system also tells you the amount of effort being used to move your body, and regulates both emotional responses and sensory input.

All children need to learn how to use the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, just like the other five senses.

Activities that target the proprioceptive system:

  • weighted blankets
  • climbing
  • pushing/pulling
  • carrying heavy objects/ wearing heavy bag
  • stress balls
  • press against with a pillow
  • paint with paintbrushes
  • suck through a straw

Dysfunction in the proprioceptive system can lead child to take actions that may seem odd, such as:

  • moving too quickly
  • crashing into things
  • seeming lethargic
  • poor awareness of where their body is and how to move it smoothly
  • walking on tiptoes
  • chewing on shirt
  • weakened muscles
  • poor endurance/posture
  • slumps
  • clumsiness
  • movements are robotic or flappy
  • holds writing implements too tight or too loose
  • looks with eyes to make body position adjustments
  • difficulty judging force or distance
  • frequent hitting/pushing incidents

The vestibular system provides information through the inner ear that tells us about our head position and how (or if) we are moving. Understanding  movement and balance helps to coordinate the movement of the head with eyes, enables you to use both sides of your body at the same time, tells you which direction you’re going and how fast, and enables you to remain upright. The vestibular system is the body’s internal GPS.

Activities that target the vestibular system:

  • using a rocking chair (or just rocking back-and-forth)
  • swinging
  • jumping
  • sliding
  • spinning

Symptoms of vestibular dysfunction:

  • difficulty with attention or following instructions
  • delay in speech or language skills
  • poor eye control
  • clumsiness
  • poor postural control (often falls from chairs)
  • poor hand-eye or eye-foot coordination
  • unsteady when walking on ground
  • unable to be held up in air/upside down/or spun
  • dislikes tilting head backwards (like in the tub to wash hair)
  • stabilizes themselves by walking with hands on walls
  • afraid to go down stairs
  • seems oblivious to risk of heights or moving equipment
  • doesn’t get dizzy even with excessive spinning or gets overly dizzy with barely any movement at all

Healthy and well-functioning vestibular and proprioceptive systems are essential, just like all other senses. Daily life is often unpleasant and confusing for people with malfunctioning senses.

Vestibular and proprioceptive dysfunction must be diagnosed by a professional occupational therapist with a specialization in sensory integration. See a doctor if there are any concerns.

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