No, I'm not referring to the movie The Sixth Sense and the ability to see dead people (although that would be really handy at times). I'm talking about humans' ability to recognise where their body parts are, both in space and in relation to their other body parts. This ability is often referred to as the sixth sense and is called proprioception.
Before I had MS, I didn't really give any thought to things like where my feet were when I walked because I didn't need to. My brain and body just took care of business and worked seamlessly together so I didn't have to waste time or energy on seemingly natural and automatic tasks. As the lesions on the myelin surrounding by brain and spine increased, however, so did the disruption to the communication superhighway between by brain and the rest of my body. This had the unsettling result of impairing my ability to accurately locate myself in space. It was most noticeable in my feet and legs when I was lying in bed and couldn't see them. I would often have to ask my husband to look at my legs and tell me whether or not they were crossed and if I still had my bed socks on because I simply couldn't tell. It wasn't until I attended an entertaining show at Questacon (Australia's National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra) that I could finally put a name to this strange phenomenon. Apparently, I was losing my sense of proprioception.
Combined with our other senses, particularly sight, proprioception is what lets us judge the position of our bodies and successfully move them around to do things such as dance, catch a ball and swing a golf club. The nerves, joints, muscles and tendons are all involved in a constant and ongoing dialogue with the brain with instructions and feedback travelling back and forth at incredible speeds to achieve even the simplest of physical tasks.
So what happens when this communication link is disrupted by a disease such as MS? I find that I now have to concentrate intensely on every single one of my daily, physical tasks. Take a trip to the toilet, for example. I bet you don't even give it a second thought as you go about your day and dash off for a wee here and there. It is a non-event, requiring no more thought than scratching a mosquito bite. It is something you do without really thinking about it. For me, the dreaded MS Monster has made a quick trip to the loo a thing of the past.
Every morning, after I turn off my 6am alarm, I roll over onto my left side and drag my knees up to my chest then gently push my lower legs over the side of the bed in preparation for sitting up and transferring to Ugly Betty, my power wheelchair. If I'm lucky, when my feet touch the floor, the feedback sent from my nerve endings to my brain won't result in a severe spasm that extends my legs out in front of me, stiff as two boards, while I slide uncontrollably from the bed and end up wedged helplessly between it and my wheelchair requiring me to wake Glen (after being up in teleconferences until 3am) to rescue me from the floor.
Next, I unplug Ugly Betty from her charger and drive into the en suite where I park close to the toilet so that I can use the grab rail to stand and then swivel into position. I slide my knickers down and slowly start to bend my knees so that I can arrive carefully and safely on the toilet seat. Unfortunately, my knees often have other ideas. For some reason, when I begin to engage my joints, muscles and tendons in this way, my crazy communication system interprets this as a sign that my knees should actually start involuntarily bouncing repeatedly and violently for an extended period of time. When this little spectacle decides to subside, I can finally get down to the actual business at hand.
It's certainly a challenge to deal with physical tasks that have become such arduous daily routines, but spare a thought for English man, Ian Waterman, who is one of the few people in the world known to have lost his sense of proprioception completely. For now, I shall be grateful that I still possess vestiges of this important sense and make the most of it whenever I can.
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