More than ever, tape — in various forms and colors — is seen on professional athletes. But how does it work? And is it just as beneficial for the amateur athlete or a weekend warrior?
The technology of tape has evolved as new materials become available and research emerges that sheds more light on common ailments or injuries. Recent research has also contradicted long-held beliefs about the effects of taping. Taping along the line of the muscle was thought to facilitate it, while taping across the line of the muscle was thought to inhibit it. Dr. Caroline Alexander and colleagues in the U.K. have found the reverse to be true — taping longitudinally for the lower trapezius muscle (important for control of the shoulder blade) or the calf muscle resulted in inhibition of the muscle, while taping across the line of these muscles had no effect.
Similarly, Takahashi and coworkers investigated the effect of firm, elastic therapeutic taping (kinesiology tape) around the wrist on grip strength, a technique commonly used in CrossFit or martial arts. The results showed that any pressure greater than 30 hPa resulted in a decrease in grip strength.
While these findings are not to say that some techniques used traditionally in the clinic do not work, it does suggest that some may not work for the reasons previously thought. Also, it’s important to point out that effectiveness of any taping is also dependent on the application.
Broadly speaking, there are three categories of therapeutic taping used to rehabilitate or prevent injury, modify technique or improve performance.
Rigid Athletic Tape
This is the traditional therapeutic tape and the one with which most people are familiar. It is strong and rigid and is generally placed on a joint to provide restriction of movement. For example, a sprained ankle can be locked in position to prevent it from moving in such a way to place strain on the damaged ligament. The ability of the tape to maintain this restriction and the time for which it is effective varies from joint to joint.
For a long while, rigid tape was the only option, but other treatment approaches have evolved, and new research has revealed new mechanisms of action. In the aforementioned ankle taping, a study by Briem showed that rigid taping increased the magnitude of activity in the peroneus longus muscle (outside of the lower leg), which acts to resist rolling over on the ankle. It is hypothesized that the strong stimulation from the tape’s pulling on the skin acts on the nervous system to affect this change. Similar changes in movement patterns and timing or activation of muscles have been noted on other conditions involving the shoulder complex, the patellofemoral (kneecap) joint and shin splints.
The original kinesiology tape was developed approximately 30 years ago by a Japanese chiropractor, Dr. Kenzo Kase. Kinesiology tape is designed to have an elasticity and thickness similar to skin. It only stretches longitudinally, in the range of 140–180 percent, depending on the brand, before reaching a rigid endpoint. This tape is generally applied with the muscle or joint in its lengthened position and has gentle elastic recoil, which is thought to gather and lift the outer layers of the skin to create space and reduce tissue pressure with the aim of improving circulation, taking pressure off pain sensitive structures and enhancing feedback to the body to help with motor control, muscle activation or inhibition.
The research regarding the magnitude and nature of any effect gained with kinesiology taping is still ambiguous. Many single case studies and anecdotal reports speak highly of the benefits. The study by Briem previously mentioned showed that, while rigid taping changed muscle activity, kinesiology taping did not. In other studies, however, it did demonstrate some increased excitability of the calf muscle in healthy controls, but no change to hop distance was found, and excitability, hop distance and pain were unaltered in a group with Achilles tendinopathy.
Little research deals specifically with taping as of yet. However, preliminary research is showing positive effects. Shortening of the foot and increase in arch height has been demonstrated. This may have significant benefits for many overuse conditions of the lower limb, such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints and Achilles tendinopathy. Changes in muscle activity are also being demonstrated.
Each of these types of tapes and methods has different properties, indications for use and mechanisms of action. They represent a different tool for a different job and should be used accordingly — mechanical restriction with athletic tapes, mechanical load absorption and modification of movement patterns without restriction via dynamic taping or addressing neurophysiological processes with all three.
Designed by the author, an Australian musculoskeletal physiotherapist working with elite athletes, this brand is a highly elastic tape that stretches in all directions and over 200 percent longitudinally. It has strong elastic recoil and is applied with the muscle or joint in the shortened position (opposite to kinesiology tapes) in order to provide a “bungee” effect to absorb load and decelerate movement, thereby reducing the workload on injured or overloaded muscles or tendons. It then recoils strongly to assist the muscles as they begin to shorten. This allows for a strong mechanical effect to manage load or to modify movement patterns while still allowing the athlete to perform complex activities. Load reduction combined with powerful neurophysiological effects provide prompt pain relief, reduce fatigue, facilitate recovery and improve performance.