What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Overwhelmed by lights, sounds, food textures, the sensation of clothing, crowds, difficultly with learning, hyperactivity, fidgeting, trouble focusing, anxiety, emotional outbursts, difficulty with social engagement, all of these can be signs of sensory processing disorders. And all can create a lot of friction, stress, and discomfort in both our child’s life and our normal life as parents as we try to go about our normal routines and activities. But why do these things occur in the first place and how can we help our kids deal better with sensory input, so they don’t become overwhelmed or struggle in certain situations?

The central nervous system works in a ‘call & respond’ fashion in that sensory input is relayed via sensory nerves (sight, touch, taste, sound, smell, balance, spatial awareness etc.), the brain then processes and makes sense of what is coming in, then makes the appropriate response through the motor system which may be action, or it could be ignoring the sensory input.

Sensory processing disorder is essentially when the sensory pathways within the central nervous system don’t communicate correctly or integrate correctly with the brain. When this happens, it can result in a few different outcomes. Children may perceive sensory input too strongly and become overwhelmed e.g., lights, sounds, crowds, clothing, haircuts, food textures etc. They may not perceive sensory input enough which results in sensory seeking behaviour such as hyperactivity, jumping, touching things lots. Or their sensory system just gets confused by what’s coming in. This can present as trouble focusing, learning difficulties, and challenges following instructions.

What Causes Sensory Processing Disorders?

The technical term for sensory disorders is ‘Dysafferentation’ which simply means dysfunction in the afferent (sensory) nerves as they send information to the brain. One of the key culprits and causes for dysafferentation is called Subluxation.

Subluxation has three components to it that create a cascade of negative neurological outcomes:

1. Misalignment – This occurs within the neuro-spinal system which is the protective ‘armor’ for the spinal cord which is where all the sensory nerves converge before heading up to the brain and where information in relayed back to the body for action/inaction via the motor nerves. This misalignment is most often caused by birth trauma & intervention but can also be caused by other everyday stressors such as falls & accidents, poor posture, prolonged sitting etc.

2. Fixation & Reduced Range of Motion (ROM) – While alignment is important, the most detrimental part of this is the lack of normal ROM that occurs and abnormal motion (the perception of movement is called proprioception) that is being relayed into the brain along with all the other senses. This is the beginning of dysafferentation and sensory disorders.

3. Neurological Interference & Imbalance – Since all the sensory pathways are bundled up in the spinal cord and run into the brain, when the movement/proprioceptive pathways are altered this has a negative impact on the way the brain perceives all neuro-sensory input. This creates altered sensory input and excessive ‘noise’ within the brain and nervous system which pushes the brain into a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ known as Dysautonomia.

When put altogether we get kids who can’t perceive or process sensory information correctly resulting in sensory overwhelm, sensory seeking behaviours, emotional challenges, and cognitive/learning difficulties.

The Vagus Nerve: They Key To Helping Sensory Disorders

The Vagus nerve is a nerve that originates in the brainstem (located in the upper neck) and is the main Parasympathetic nerve i.e., rest, digest & calm. It also plays a major role in sensory processing. Due to its location in the upper neck, the Vagus nerve is commonly injured during traumatic births, especially when physical interventions are involved due to the mechanical stress placed on the upper neck.

The Vagus nerve can be measured using Heart-Rate Variability (HRV) technology. A safe, non-invasive way to measure exactly how much tone (strength) the Vagus nerve has. What is evident is that kids with poorer Vagus nerve strength have more challenges with sensory processing disorders and affect a child’s ability to engage in everyday social, communication, and daily living skills.

Strengthening The Vagus Nerve Through Chiropractic Care:

At The Wellness Collective we see a lot of children struggling with sensory processing disorders of all kinds. One of the most valuable tests we run is HRV (pictured below) to get an accurate view of how strong their Vagus nerve and Parasympathetic nervous system are functioning. Once we have a baseline established, we can construct the perfect chiropractic care plan to improve the health of their nervous system and their ability to process sensory input and have a greater quality of life. This is because chiropractic adjustments, particularly to the upper neck region, are potent at activating the Vagus nerve. And because the brain is ‘plastic’ meaning it can learn, change, and ‘re-wire’ through repetition, a proper care plan allows a child’s nervous system to return to a normal baseline and that child can thrive!

Heart-Rate Variability (HRV) scan which measures Vagus nerve tone/strength

If this sounds like your child and you’d like to get them scanned, then simply click HERE and our team will reach out and get a consult scheduled for you.

To learn more head to our next FREE workshop by clicking HERE.

Dr Ben Edwards

Pediatric Chiropractor

B.Chiro., Dipp.App.Sci.