What’s with all the “red” tape?
There are two basic types of tape used for sports:
I spend a lot of my time working with athletic trainers who tend to use rigid, non-elastic tape to treat and prevent injuries. The idea behind the practice is to provide stability to an area. For example, the rigid athletic tape can support a sprained ankle and prevent further injury while an athlete continues to play. The tape “splints” the area to some degree, which prevents it from moving in harmful ways.
The other common tape used in sports medicine is elastic tape. The elastic properties have been suggested to affect lymphatic drainage, muscle function, posture control, injury awareness, flexibility and strength. One would not expect elastic tape to provide the same support structure as rigid tape. Kinesio or “K-tape” is a type of elastic tape that has been studied a lot since its introduction into the sports medicine world.
At the 2008 Summer Olympics, the colorful tape appeared on the shoulders of the USA women’s sand volleyball team. This new elastic tape was first only available when prescribed by a medical professional, usually a chiropractor or physical therapist, before it was sold over the counter. The transition from needing a medical professional to apply the tape to becoming an over-the-counter remedy made me wonder if technique mattered in the application process. This piqued my curiosity. My research on elastic tape treatments revealed it was possibly something that improved circulation, swelling, pain, and awareness of an injury, and I wondered if there were any new studies showing anything different.
What does it actually do? And does it actually work?
So I got to work reviewing 48 studies performed on elastic tape over the last decade. The studies looked at flexibility, strength, jump height, neurological improvement, and soccer performance, among other things.
Most of the studies weren’t designed well—either not clearly looking for a benefit from elastic versus any other type of tape, or it didn’t look for a difference from a non-taped scenario. The conclusions had questions associated with them, making it difficult to interpret.
The other studies did not show any differences between using elastic tape versus not using tape.
There were studies that showed a decrease in pain when using elastic tape on an injured area—a good benefit since less pain should equal better performance in your sport.
Some studies showed very mild changes in functional measurements. For example, the time to peak torque for a muscle decreased. So you can peak the muscle to a maximal effort sooner. Unfortunately, even despite this finding, there wasn’t a study that showed any improvement in performance. So, one doesn’t jump higher, have more strength, or perform better with elastic tape—meaning the significance of the peak torque is not yet clear.
Some studies looked at tape applied with stretch as intended versus being applied without stretch. Both showed the same pain relief. It appears that the pain relief comes from something other than the elastic property of the tape. With the lack of evidence of sports performance improvement, it has been suggested the pain relief from K-tape is the equivalent of a placebo affect. It has also been suggested that by wearing any type of tape, an athlete is paying more attention to the injury and therefore managing it better; resulting in improvements in pain.
Other studies showed a possible neurological benefit. Patients who have neurological problems like weakness after a stroke, multiple sclerosis, or Parkinson’s disease were tested with and without elastic tape. Some of these studies showed an improvement in balance. However, they didn’t compare elastic tape to other types of tape. It’s hard to say if the elastic tape was providing some stability like any other tape, or if it had a unique property for improvement. Again, these are difficult to interpret and less relevant in the sports performance and injury recovery world I work in.
Other studies showed a perceived decrease in pain and swelling as well as increase in strength. But, when the non-subjective parameters (swelling and strength) were measured, there was not a change in swelling or strength, just perceived pain.
All in all, I think there could be more studies performed to try to further identify the benefits of elastic tape and to quantify those effects on athletic performance. Currently, the studies with well controlled and planned investigation show a decrease in pain for some but do not clearly link that to the elastic component of the tape.
Studies that had the most beneficial effects were ones that combined elastic tape with other things like physical therapy. In those types of studies, participants who paired elastic tape with physical therapy did just as well. However, they did not do better than those who did just the physical therapy treatments. So, it’s hard to claim the elastic tape provided any additional therapy benefit.
One study showed a decrease in strength of muscles with elastic tape use, but again that didn’t affect function for the sport.
So is it all hype? It’s hard to say. K-tape, a type of elastic tape, has surely helped some people with pain management. It also helps some people in ways that have not been shown to improve sports performance, but are unlikely harmful. Other than the expense of the tape, there is no reason not to use it. My consensus: there’s no clear evidence or reason as to why you should.