Protective reflexes are involved in all of our daily activities.
During healthy movement, the central nervous system uses information from a vast array of sensory receptors in an effort to ensure optimal muscle activity. Sensory information from muscles, joints, and skin is essential for regulating movement. Without sufficient sensory input, gross motor movements tend to be imprecise and tasks that require fine coordination become impossible.
Reflexes are coordinated involuntary motor responses that are initiated by the central nervous system in response to peripheral sensory input. Reflexes have been viewed as predictable innate movements. However, recent research has substantially transformed our understanding of reflexes. We now know that reflexes are modified by functional conditioning. For more information on functional conditioning, refer to the article on Understanding Neuromuscular Function.
Protective reflexes can be trained.
Both voluntary and automatic movements can be conditioned to become reflexive. Some reflex-initiated actions attempt to avoid potentially hazardous situations, whereas others automatically adapt motor patterns to maintain or achieve a conscious behavioural goal. Over time, a repetitive mindful movement becomes unconscious (reflexive).
Motor reflexes provide optimal self-protective responses. A properly functioning neuromuscular system is another critical element in the overall mechanism of self-protection. Neuromuscular and protective reflex function may be disrupted as a result of trauma or adversely affected by insufficient sensory input and environmental influences that inhibit the reflexive movement.
Orienting and defensive reflex responses are intertwined and critical for self-protection. For the threat reflex response to function correctly, the neuromuscular system functions that contribute to the ability to orient and defend must be integrated, functional, and available. An individual’s protective reflex function can be impaired by “unhealthy” neuromuscular functional conditioning. Functional impairment occurs as a result of insufficient sensory input and/or environment influences that inhibit the reflex activated movement. Compromised protective reflex function may leave the person with an impaired capacity for defensive actions that predate the current traumatic event. Fortunately, the techniques for restoring healthy protective reflex function parallel those for restoring virtually all neuromuscular function: gently increase the demand for the absent reflexes until the body brings the appropriate movements into play.
The body’s neuromuscular systems must have the proper level of function available to meet the challenges to those systems. Critical to this restoration process, the body must receive an adequate “healthy” stimulus to initiate an appropriate reflex response, and there must be no impediment to the associated reflex active movement. If either of these requirements is absent, or if there has been severe physical damage to the neuromuscular system, there may be a limit to how completely protective reflex responses can return to full function.
Physical repair of the neuromuscular systems is a common focus of modern body therapy modalities. It is standard practice to employ “proper technique” physical therapy treatments or sports training programs to rehabilitate inefficient or injured neuromuscular function.