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Kinesthesia vs. Proprioception: What’s The Difference?

kinesthesia and proprioception

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The words kinesthesia and proprioception are often used interchangeably. While they are similar, they aren’t the same thing and we can’t simply replace one with the other. So, what’s the difference exactly? The difference between proprioception and kinesthesia seems subtle, but it’s actually huge and significant. Let’s dive in.

Kinesthesia

Kinesthesia refers to the body’s awareness that it’s moving. Our brains say, “hey, I’m walking!”

Our brains mainly get these signals from the muscles. When we move our legs, the muscles that make the magic happen pass the message along to the brain. “I feel my calf muscles working! I must be walking forwards.”

The brain can also get this info from the skin. “My leg hairs are cold! I must be running.”

When kinesthesia is working properly, we can tell that we’re moving and also how. I should know that I took a step and in what direction I took that step in.

If I take a step forward, but my brain tells me I just took a step backwards, I’ll probably fall over. This is a big clue that my kinesthesia may be out of whack.

How is Kinesthesia a Sensory Issue?

Our bodies use the nervous system as a way to communicate. If my leg moves, a signal gets sent through the nervous system to tell the brain what’s going on. On the other hand, if my brain needs to tell my leg to move, the signal will be sent in the opposite direction. Signals go back and forth all day as we take in sensory information and tell our bodies to move.

Let’s say that I took a step forward, but my brain thinks I took a step backwards. Maybe my muscle didn’t feel the step enough to send a strong enough signal to the brain; maybe my brain doesn’t know where my foot is in space to begin with; maybe the signal got lost on the way to the brain. 

Somehow, the sensory signal didn’t reach or get translated to the brain properly. It’s a sensory issue.

We usually only notice issues with kinesthesia if they impair our abilities to function. Should we struggle to walk, stand, or perform general movements, we then begin to wonder if a kinesthesia impairment is at play.

Don’t worry though! Kinesthesia is something that can be worked on and improved! After we chat about proprioception, we’ll dive into ways to work on kinesthetic skills.

Proprioception vs. Kinesthesia

There’s good reason why kinesthesia and proprioception are used interchangeably. Both are extremely similar, while also having an important difference.

As we discussed, kinesthesia is awareness of how the body is moving in space. If I take a step forward, my brain understands that my foot is moving forwards and not backwards. Proprioception on the other hand refers only to the awareness that my foot is now in front of me and not behind me. Unlike kinesthesia, proprioception doesn’t care how my foot got there; it just wants to tell my brain that my foot is now in front of me.

In short kinesthesia cares about movement, while the proprioceptive system does not. Proprioception cares about where the body is in space, regardless of how it got into that position.

What Do Issues with Kinesthesia and Proprioception Look Like?

People with sensory processing issues can often struggle with kinesthesia and proprioception. In fact, proprioception is commonly referred to as our sixth sense, as spatial awareness is so incredibly important for daily function. 

By no means a comprehensive list, here are some examples of what issues with impaired kinesthesia and proprioception can look like:

Help! This Sixth Sense is Out of Whack!

Well, let’s get moving! While it takes time to refine kinesthetic and proprioceptive skills, it’s not rocket science. Our brains instinctively want to understand the info that our bodies are sending them.

The more we move, the more info we send to the brain, the more our brains try to make sense of it.

As proprioception is often considered to be a sixth sense, occupational therapists like to test it when even a whisper of a sensory processing issue is mentioned. If you’re concerned that either you or your child needs help with this sixth sense, chat with a professional.

How to Develop Kinesthesia and Proprioception Skills

As I mentioned, movement plays a big role in helping to refine the kinesthetic and proprioceptive systems. In occupational therapy sessions, you may notice your child swinging, bouncing, balancing, and jumping. Bigger movements give the brain bigger signals. Bigger signals give the brain more of a chance to understand what the body is doing and where it is in space.

Similar to what we talked about in my post about hyposensitivity to sensory input, the brain often needs bigger signals from the muscles than is typical.

In short, get familiar with heavy work and do it often!

Below are some great videos showing you how to use heavy work with your kiddos. If you’re hungry for more though, check out some of my favorite activities for improving kinesthesia.

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3 thoughts on “Kinesthesia vs. Proprioception: What’s The Difference?”

  1. Diana,
    Your article is very informative, easy to understand. Was this information available 20 years ago? I wish my son’s OT explained it to me this way back then. As a young adult now, he still exhibits the signs. I assume he always will?
    R.

  2. Hi R,
    I’m so glad it was helpful! While this info was available 20 years ago, research and general knowledge has progressed a lot since then, so it’s much easier now to access it.
    A lot of kids will work on their sensory challenges throughout their whole lives. The goal of OT and other therapies is to find strategies that make these challenges easier to manage, but not to make them go away. A lot of kids go through ups and downs as they develop and will need help from an OT to adapt their strategies to their new circumstances.

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