The Sixth Sense

You know them. Five senses of sight, sound, scent, taste and touch. Now a sixth emerges – the sense of proprioception or knowing where your body is in space.

Like the eyes for sight or ears for hearing, the anatomic structure for proprioception is the fascia.   In its’ capacity as a multidimensional body wide web, fascia functions as a rapid communication channel to send location coordinates and wellness biomarkers to the central nervous system from all parts of the body. It’s the GPS and thermometer for the brain.

Like 20/20 vision, the hallmark of healthy fascia is the ability to move with ease and grace. You know it when you see it. It looks bouncy and effortless and energetic.

It’s relatively easy to understand fascia as a wrapping that holds everything in place, but some of its’ other functions are not as well understood. Fascia is rich in sensory nerves that provide constant and rapid communication to a hungry, eager and demanding brain.

Basically, nerve fibers in fascia are transmitting three types of information to the brain. The first is Proprioceptive information about location of body parts in space. The second is pain (Nociception) – no further explanation needed. The third is Interoception, which transmits “internal” feelings from the body – nausea, warmth, soreness, feeling heavy or light or even recognizing parts of the body as belonging or alien. Interoceptive signals are often associated with strong emotional reactions.

Pain from fascial stress is termed myofascial pain – sometimes referred to as soft tissue injury. Myofascial pain syndromes are very real and can be chronic and hard to treat. Most instances of a “thing” with a shoulder, back or hip will be myofascial in origin and frequently start from poor postural habits causing stress in sensitive and fragile soft tissue structures.

Fascia tends to be all in or all out. Unresolved fascial pain in one area of the body can “open up the doors” to latent areas of stress elsewhere. Pain occurs in other areas of the body in seemingly unrelated episodes. A problem shoulder can morph into back pain or knee pain. Frequently we fight the same set of aches and pains as the body comes into balance and goes out again.

Sometimes myofascial pain is associated with trigger points – small palpable nodules within stretched taut bands of muscle. Active trigger points can be associated with localized or referred pain; latent trigger points may be dormant unless antagonized by direct pressure or through recruitment of unresolved active trigger points.

Likewise therapeutically manipulating fascia can calm thing down in a hurry. Tight, stressed and disorderly fascia results in postural imbalance sometimes limiting range of motion. Releasing fascia in one dimension to restore structural balance causes fascia to release in all dimensions.

Most receptors in fascia are polymodal meaning they tend to respond to Proprioceptive, Nociceptor and Interoceptive stimuli. This concept can be used to fight pain. The brain is so eager for information coming from the fascia that it will take anything but it likes Proprioception the best.

Called “Proprioception against Nociception”, activating proprioceptors (through mindful movement) dampen nociceptor activity and decrease pain coming from stressed fascia. Mindful full body movements like Pilates and yoga are examples of therapeutic modalities that reduce myofascial pain.

Proprioceptors signal the sensorimotor regions of the brain. Interoceptors go to a different part of the brain – the insular cortex that deals with emotion.

Proprioceptive impairment is associated with low back pain, scoliosis and myofascial pain syndromes. Conversely, Interoceptive dysregulation is associated with anxiety and depression, irritable bowel, alexithymia (emotional blindness), anorexia and fibromyalgia – disorders with a high emotional component.

Mindful movement keeps fascia healthy. Just do it.


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