Sensory drives motor. It sounds geeky, and it probably doesn't even make sense to you. But by the end of this message I'm hoping it will have hit home, and you'll be thinking about your body in a whole new light.
Firstly, a bit of background. Our very clever nervous system is like a two-laned highway with information travelling in two directions.
This is our body's main communication mechanism – it's how we get to understand what's going on within our body, and it's what helps us to move and function in the way we do.
One lot of information travels along efferent pathways moving from the brain to the body. We call this the 'motor' system and it is led by motor neurons. An example of this would be we wiggling our toes - our brain sends a signal to our toes to wiggle.
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A further example of this would be peristalsis which is the contraction mechanisms within the digestive tract that enable efficient and effective digestive processing.
The first example is a conscious action controlled by the somatic branch of the peripheral nervous system. The second example is an unconscious action controlled by the autonomic branch of the peripheral nervous system.
The other lot of information travels along efferent pathways from the body to the brain. We call this the 'sensory' system which is led by sensory neurons. An example of this would be an itch - our body sends a signal to our brain that we have an itch - and then consequently it sends us motor signals to our arm, hand and fingers to scratch that itch.
A further example of this would be sensing butterflies in our stomach as a result of anxiety or nerves.
Both examples are messages whereby a signal is being sent from our body to our brain, that our brain can then choose to respond to if required.
Our body is covered in sensory receptors which are crucial for the efferent pathway to function – sensory receptors are the things that 'sense' something, ie. an itch, the butterflies.
But there's one type of sensory receptor that is, in this case, more important than any other - and that is a mechanoreceptor.
Mechanoreceptors live in the skin, muscles and connective tissues of the body. They respond to touch, vibration, pressure, force and distortion. When we stretch a muscle, for instance, mechanoreceptors are activated - sending a signal to the brain to not let that muscle stretch any further or it might tear.
This is where this message gets mighty cool and critically important. Mechanoreceptors are activated when we move, when we're touched, or stimulated. The more and the better we move, and the more our bodies are stimulated in various ways, the more mechanoreceptors we activate.
When we don't move, or when we have stiffness, tension or limitations that prevent us from moving well and with great ranges of motion and freedom, mechanoreceptors are not activated.
The most important point of this message follows: For every mechanoreceptor (sensory neuron) that is not activated (due to restrictions in the body and/or lack of stimulation types to the body) 30 (yes 30) motor neurons are inhibited.
You want to read that sentence again. And again.
Because what that means is that when we don't move, or when we have tightness, restriction or reduced range of motion, that we are prohibiting 30 motor pathways from doing their duty.
Motor neurons control EVERY single action that goes on in our body - from muscle movement, to all 500+ liver processes, to our gut motility, to our heart beating, to our hormone production.
Every little action, system or process that goes on in our body to keep us alive is controlled by our motor/efferent system. And if we have mechanoreceptors that are not being activated for the above reasons, thus affecting how many motor neurons are not being activated or called to duty (a ratio of 1:30), that's a whole lot of essential healthy processes in our body that are being missed.
This brings forth the notion that movement isn't just critical for the more external aspects of our physical body, but more so that movement is crucial for the WHOLE body to function well, effectively and efficiently. And that movement affects every single aspect of our health and being.
What to do?
The simplicity here is that by altering how often, when, what and how we move we can restore innumerable aspects of our health. Move often, move different, move in more ways and in more environments – one of my mentor's favourite quotes. It's application is perfect here.
Underlying message: Please don't ignore stiffness or tension. The problem travels far greater than we realise.
• Corinne Austin is a movement and health coach (email@example.com).