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  • Writer's pictureDr. Bonnie Verhunce

Understanding Your Nervous System: Reflexes

They can happen—literally—in the blink of an eye. Sometimes even faster than that. We’re talking about your reflexes. But what exactly are reflexes and how do they work?

In medical terms, a reflex is described as a “sensorimotor arc”. This arc occurs when a sensory receptor neuron (such as a pain receptor in the skin) receives a stimulus and sends a signal to a motor neuron in the central nervous system (spinal cord). The motor neuron then sends a response to the proper effector (a muscle or gland) without needing to involve the brain. So our body’s reaction occurs automatically without us having to think about it consciously.

Our reflexes come into play in a variety of ways and serve a variety of purposes from our earliest days. Newborn babies have a considerably larger number of reflexes than adults. These reflexes evolved over time to help ensure the survival of the infant. Rooting, sucking and hand-to-mouth movements are all reflexive in a baby so that the infant is more likely to get enough food.

Adults have reflexes too, but some are obvious and some are not. For example, reflexes help us

maintain our body’s internal temperature. If the body is exposed to cold, it shivers to maintain a core temperature of 98.6°F. If it’s hot outside, the body sweats to keep itself from overheating. We also depend on our reflexes to maintain our body’s position and balance. Our muscles have a constant awareness of their shape. When the muscle changes shape by stretching, an automatic signal is sent to adjust the muscle shape to maintain our posture. It is a signal that happens so quickly that we are not aware of the continual adjustments our muscles are making in order to keep us upright.

There are countless other examples. Our pupils dilate in the presence of low light. We blink when debris is flying toward our eyes. Our mouths water at the scent of food cooking. Some reflex reactions are more dramatic, such as pulling your hand back quickly when you touch a hot surface, ducking to avoid a blow and extending your hands to brace for a fall.

Our reflexes can provide a useful window into the health of our nervous system, and a doctor may perform reflex testing for a variety of reasons. It may be used as part of a regular check-up or it may be used as part of the diagnostic process if a physician suspects the presence of a spinal cord injury or neuromuscular disease.

Many of us probably recall our childhood visits to the pediatrician. And some of us might even remember being amused and surprised when the doctor used a little hammer to tap just below our knee and our lower leg jumped in response ALL BY ITSELF! Later in life, we probably learned that this is simple test used to test one of our many reflexes—the patellar or knee-jerk reflex.

Different parts of the body can be gently struck with a mallet, and the type of response points to the type of damage. A response that is absent or weak can indicate peripheral neuropathy, motor neuron disease or muscle disease. Conversely, an excessive response may indicate damage to the spinal cord above the area responsible for hyperactivity. A response that is different on each side of the body (one knee reacts more or less than the other, for instance), may be an indication of the early onset of a degenerative nerve disease or an acute trauma.

Dr Bonnie is an expert in diagnosing and treating a wide range of injuries and health conditions that affect the musculoskeletal and nervous systems.

Whether you have general questions or specific concerns about your own health and wellness, we encourage you to call or visit our office today. We’re here to help!

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