Touch: A Multi-Sensational Feeling

OT mom says, “Don’t touch me, unless you’re going to hug me!”

Ok, maybe I’ve never said those exact words, but firm, deep pressure touch is definitely more calming than light touch, and obviously more comforting than any kind of painful touch. Our sense of touch, known as the tactile system, is essential for everyday functioning and is interestingly quite complex. TOUCH

As children, we learned about the sense of touch as one of our five main senses (although there are other senses as well, such as the proprioceptive and vestibular senses). When we think about the sense of touch, most of us will first think about what we might feel with our hands, how we use our hands to identify objects, and the different sensations we may feel on our skin. While all of this is true, there is so much more to the sense of touch.

The tactile system works closely with the proprioceptive system to make up what is known as the somatosensory system. This is important for developing body awareness, and this system sets the foundation for our ability to engage with our surroundings and navigate our environment. This system also includes sensory information about pain, temperature, and vibration.

Receptors for touch are found in our skin and there are multiple kinds of receptors that react to different types of touch sensations. For example, we have receptors known as Meissner’s corpuscles as well as Merkel discs and instead of boring you with an anatomy lesson, just know they are sensitive to different types of touch (light discriminative touch and vibration, and pressure for fine touch awareness, respectively… in case you were wondering). Tactile information is also relayed from receptors on hair roots and from free nerve endings in our skin.4

From all this information, not only are we are able to identify what we are feeling through our skin, we are able to use this information with our other sensory systems to complete complex motor control tasks such as writing, walking, and tying our shoes.

tactile functioning sets the stage for higher level skills

As I mentioned before, touch does even more for us. The sense of touch has a direct influence on our arousal level as well, meaning that it can influence how alert and focused or calm and relaxed we are at any given time.

For example, light touch tends to be alerting. Think about when a bug lands on your arm and displaces a hair or two. Those hair follicle receptors fire and alert you to the possible threat. How do you respond? Most of us automatically swat the area of skin or at least immediately look it over.

On the other hand, touch can be calming. Think about a nice massage- the firm, moderate to deep touch calms most people down, especially when it’s slow and linear.3 Another example I like to think about is the sensation of soft, warm, and heavy blankets when you climb into bed.

Let’s not forget about the emotional components of touch. Even before we are born, we are developing our sense of touch. From as early as five and a half weeks after conception, reflex avoidance reactions occur in response to touch. As soon as we are born, we begin to bond with our parents through touch. The research about kangaroo care (the practice of a parent holding their infant with skin to skin contact) demonstrates numerous benefits of this touch, both physiologic and behavioral, and for both the parent and baby. Benefits such as improved weight gain and growth, stable body temperatures and heart rates and better self-regulation have been seen for infants and parents may demonstrate more confidence in parenting and have decreased stress levels.1

emotional benefits of touch

As babies, we bond with through the sense of touch, then we learn and explore our environment and develop a body map that will allow for higher level functioning, such as moving through our environment and manipulating items.

As we grow up, the sense of touch continues to influence our emotional functioning. Studies have indicated that married couples that engage in more touch, such as through hugs and massage, have correlated decreases in cortisol levels and blood pressure, and increased oxytocin levels.2

Moderate touch through activities such as massage have been seen to decrease heart rate and change EEG patterns, so not only does it feel nice, it has systemic influence over the entire body.2

But wait!  The list continues…. benefits of specific types of touch, such as massage protocols, have also been correlated with decreased pain, increased immune function, reduction in depression, and increased attention.2

As with every sense, we are on a continuum of how sensitive we are to that particular sense stimuli. Some people are over-responsive to touch and others under, with most of us somewhere in-between.

Those who are hyper-responsive may react more strongly to touch than others. They may demonstrate extreme discomfort with certain fabrics or clothing, may dislike having their hands and/or mouth messy, and may be distraught when being touched by others.

On the other side of the continuum, some people are hypo-responsive and may not notice tactile input quite so much, such as the person who doesn’t notice the food on their face. Finally, there are sensory seekers in the world- those who crave specific sensory inputs, such as a person who has the need to touch and fidget with different materials or even touch other people.

Recognizing that some people may be very sensitive to touch is importation, as the tactile system has connections with the autonomic nervous system and could potentially trigger a fight or flight response. Therefore, it’s important NOT to force tactile situations on kids or who demonstrate tactile defensiveness. Often, it’s easier to present tactile stimuli in combination with proprioceptive input, but of course, if you have major concerns, consider a referral to an OT to look at the specific situation.

tactile input to calm or alert

So how can we use this understanding of our sense of touch? By promoting the development of this sense, and utilizing the tactile system in our daily routines:

Alerting activities include light touch, such as tickling. You can try using a feather boa or light clothing to let kids play games and to play dress up. Calming activities include using massage, weighted blankets, moderate and deep pressure inputs such as hugs.

Allowing children to have ample opportunities for tactile exploration may promote the development of this sense and tactile discrimination abilities. Some ideas to do this include:

  • Sensory bins/boxes- filled with sand, rice, dried pasta, beans, small balls, etc.
  • Play with your food
  • Manipulate play dough, gak, slime, floam
  • Use nature– sand sticks, grass, rocks
  • Put on lotion
  • Play dress up

Also, don’t forget to hold those babies, squeeze your spouse, and utilize this sensational sense of touch!  On that note, I think I need to go hug my family now 🙂

 

*Disclaimer: The information presented in the blog is intended for information purposes only. Please consult your physician with any medical concerns and/or for medical advice. The information presented is not intended to be used in place of individualized therapy services, please contact your health care team for skilled therapy if you think it is necessary. Please supervise your children (or friends, spouses, etc)  if you decide to try any of the activities or ideas presented as the author or this blog does not claim liability for possible injury or negative consequences related to the activities and ideas presented here.

 

References:

  1. Case-Smith, J. & O’Brien, J. (2009) Occupational Therapy for Childretn (6th). Mosby Elsevier, St. Louis, Missouri
  2. Field, T. (2009). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: review. Developmental Review, 30, 367-383. Doi:10.1016/j.dr.2011.01.001
  3. Kramer, P. & Hinojosa, J. (2010). Frames of Reference for Pediatric Occupational Therapy (3rd). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA
  4. Lundy-Ekman, L. (2007). Neuroscience: Fundamentals for Rehabilitation (3rd). Saunders Elsevier, St. Louis, Missouri
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Embrace the Power of Proprioception

Dr. Dad says, “Stop taking apart the couch!”

OT Mom says, “Not just yet. Stack those those cushions, kids!”

You may be wondering, what the heck is proprioception? Proprioception is the sense of our joints position, the location of our body parts in space, and the awareness of the strength being used for a particular task. It allows us to know where our limbs are and how much force we are using at any given moment. The sense receptors for proprioception are within the muscles and joints of our bodies. This sensory system is super important and allows us to move and react to our environment and works in connection with our other senses. In particular, the tactile (aka touch) sensory system and proprioceptive system work closely to help use develop body awareness as children (Kramer & Hinojosa, 2010).

embrace-the-power

While most of us can self regulate our sensory needs to succeed throughout life, some of us need or could use a little more help. We are all on a continuum in the realm of sensory experience, and I believe that my kids happen to be more towards the sensory seeking end of the spectrum.

When my 3 year old gets out of bed, the first thing he does is STOMP down the hallway. He love to to crash, spin, jump, and dance. He screams just to scream and instead of just walking to his door of the car, he rubs against the car on his way. My daughter, who loves to spin and dance and push our kitchen chairs around the house seems to be following in his foot steps. It’s pretty normal for toddlers to be full of energy and active and it’s such a good opportunity to let them engage in sensory  activities. 

Your own kids (or yourself) may not be towards the sensory seeking end of the spectrum, but they are somewhere on the sensory continuum. Some of us seek out input, some of us avoid it, and most of use do a combination or do something in-between.  Sensory input is all around us, and the way we process the world impacts our functioning in many ways.

So adding proprioceptive activities to your daily routine can help regulate your alertness or arousal to an optimal state.

Proprioceptive input is powerful.

It can calm you down or amp you up a bit. An easy way to think of proprioceptive input is to think of “heavy work” activities. You want these sensory experiences to impact your muscles and joints. My son is awesome at figuring out ways to engage in heavy work through play, but he sometimes needs a little help with he’s getting off track or when we are not at home when his usual go-to’s are not available.

Learning from the best, we can look at the favorite self-sought activities from my awesome little three year old:

  •   Stacking the couch cushions– Although it’s probably not the best thing for our couch (and drives Dr. Dad crazy) it provides multiple sensory inputs. He gets the heavy work from lifting and stacking the cushions. He also loves to climb over them and squeeze himself under them providing deep pressure input. An added bonus is that I can see his imagination at work. He likes to build “volcanos” and “hotels.” This activity obviously benefits from close supervision to prevent fall, injury, etc, but with supervision, it’s been a big favorite in my house.
    • In addition to being buried under the couch cushions, my son loves to be buried by toys. Deep pressure following the hard work of moving the toys seems to comfort him. He will remove all of his toys from the toy box and ask to be buried. Again- use common sense and caution. I am looking forward to summer when he might like getting buried in the sand.

Since we are not always able to play in the living room by the couch and my kiddo still craves sensory input throughout the day, here are some additional ideas we’ve come up with to sneak in some input and/or add it to your daily routines.

everyday

  • While at the store– push a shopping cart and help lift the shopping items- this obviously engages the muscles, and most kids think it’s pretty fun. I love that some grocery stores have mini carts for kids, what a great idea, load it up!
  • Have them help with chores– shovel, rake, sweep, vacuum, mop, and scrub. While little ones might not do the best job, they are sure good helpers. Even if the chores take a bit longer, I find it rewarding to allow my kids to help and it provides such great sensory experiences. In addition to proprioception, you’re using lots of other great senses too (visual, auditory, tactile, vestibular)! It also helps develop a sense of accomplishment and roles within the family unit which I think is great for a child’s self-esteem.1
  • Push and pull– my son is a great helper and loves pulling his little sister in a wagon or sled, or pushing her in a stroller. Proprioceptive input that is in a consistent direction tends to be more calming, while push and pull actives (like tug-a-war, mopping, vacuuming) tend to be more alerting. Keep that in mind if you are considering a game of tug-a-war before bed… it might be best as a first thing in the morning activity.
  • In a pinch- Adding proprioception throughout your daily routing takes just a few minutes.  If you don’t have time for a big session, there are little things that can provide some great sensory input. Things like jumping jacks, dancing, yoga poses, animal walks (walk like a “bear,” “crab,” etc), clapping and marching/stomping games can be effective, quick, and easy to incorporate throughout the day.
  • Don’t forget the small joints, they count too! Hard work for little hands can give some good input too. Some ideas for play time include actives like play dough, legos type snapping blocks, and popping bubble wrap. While helping out around the house, kids can help with kneading pizza or bread dough, squeezing a spray bottle, or maintaining control of a hand held electric mixer when baking.

Finally, please remember, proprioception is not just for kids. Perhaps my kids are on the sensory seeking end of the proprioceptive spectrum because I am as well. People who know me, know I have trouble sitting still, and Dr. Dad can attest to my sometimes strange dance moves/hops that can seem to come out of nowhere while just walking through my house (though I tend to restrain myself in public). Part of my sensory routine is going for runs whenever I get the chance or at least doing some light to moderate physical activity on a daily or near daily basis. While my husband isn’t quite the sensory seeker I am when it comes to proprioception, he does feel great and balanced after lifting weights. What do you do to regulate yourself? 

References:

Kramer, P. & Hinojosa, J. (2010). Pediatric Occupational Therapy (3rd ed). Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA

*Disclaimer: The information presented in the blog is intended for information and entertainment purposes only. Please consult your physician with any medical concerns and/or for medical advice. The information presented is not intended to be used in place of individualized therapy services, please contact your health care team for skilled therapy if you think it is necessary. Please supervise your children (or friends, spouses, etc)  if you decide to try any of the activities or ideas presented as the author or this blog does not claim liability for possible injury or negative consequences related to the activities and ideas presented here.