Body's Built-In Computer Helps Recovery From Sports Injury

October 14, 1998

University Park, Pa. -- Early intervention after a sports injury is essential to re-boot the body's built-in computer, which aids in stabilizing the smallest movements of muscles and joints, says the October issue of the Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter.

The body's computer is made up of proprioceptors, sensory receptors in the joints, tendons and muscles which provide information reinforcing a person's conscious efforts to position and monitor movement of body parts. This internal guidance system helps athletes to perform in sports and above all, to avoid injuries.

When the human body senses a position change, proprioception triggers muscles to contract or relax to fit the situation. Some exercise scientists believe that this activation of reflexes to protect the joints from injury may be as important as the conscious actions taken by athletes to protect themselves.

A sports injury such as a torn ligament or muscle can result in a ruptured nerve which literally causes the body's computer to "crash." As a result, the message that a certain part of the body needs for protection is not delivered. At times, a message gets through, but the information is inaccurate. This breakdown in communication can cause faulty mechanics or sudden loss of coordination, the Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter says.

The longer the athlete stays out of training after an injury, the harder it is for the body computer to recover. This is why physicians, therapists and trainers emphasize a quick response to injury consisting of protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation.

When inflammation and swelling are quickly brought under control, damage to the body computer is significantly reduced, and the athlete can soon return to play. Although there is evidence that a lack of proprioceptive response is related to low back and shoulder pain, much of the research on the subject involves the ankle, according to the newsletter.

One study demonstrated that athletes who have suffered ankle sprains were likely to have second and third sprains, even though their ankles were mechanically sound. A second investigation revealed a "proprioceptive deficit" in patients with a history of ankle sprains. The study also found evidence that the more severe the ankle injury, the less able a person is to reproduce certain joint positions.

Regaining proprioception ought to be an essential component of rehabilitation. After strength, flexibility and endurance training, proprioception training should be the next step, even with mild joint injuries treated without medical intervention.

Some examples of proprioception training for the lower part of the body include standing on one leg, using a wobble board (a platform with a rounded base), and trying to maintain balance with an exercise partner pushing from different directions are examples of proprioception re-training.

Closed-chain exercises such as leg presses, squats, vertical jumps, running figure eights and crossover walking are other routines to help you re-establish the connection between nerves and muscles, the Penn State newsletter notes.

Exercises for the upper body are more complex and should be discussed with a physician or therapist. Lower back pain stabilizing exercises and wall pushups against resistance are examples of what might be prescribed. Proprioception re-training practice is usually followed by sport-specific movements to complete the rehabilitation process.

EDITORS: For media interviews, contact Penn State Sports Medicine Newsletter Editor Dr. Jim M. Brown at (770) 682-1670 (phone); (770) 682-1810 (fax): or by e-mail.

Penn State

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