by Troy Vander Molen, PT, DPT
If you go to any sports events, you likely have seen athletes wearing the colorful tape, often branded with the maker’s logo. Though it had already been around for decades, the popularity of this elastic tape ballooned in 2008 when beach volleyball players and other athletes began sporting this elastic tape in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
At that time, the brand involved was Kinesio Tape (KT), but, as often happens, there has been a proliferation of similar tapes that all fit within the category commonly referred to as elastic therapeutic tape or kinesiology tape. Other common brands included Rock Tape, Acti-Tape, and Spider Tape.
Elastic tape is unique to other types of tape, like traditional athletic tape, in that it has elastic properties. Typically, elastic tape is designed to stretch up to approximately 140% of its original length, thus mimicking the properties of skin and allowing for some “recoil” or pulling force on the skin and underlying structures. These features are opined to provide several benefits including a correction of alignment of weak muscles, facilitation of joint motion, reduction in swelling, enhanced blood flow, and pain reduction.
While the popularity of this intervention continues to rise, it might seem safe to assume that these claims are supported by strong scientific evidence, systematic review of randomized controlled trials. However, you might also be surprised. If you’re into research, click here to read a brief summary of the most current research pertaining to the using of elastic tape.
An even briefer summary is this: Research has shown that kinesiology taping can provide a short-term pain reduction; however, it is not any more effective than other methods of controlling pain. It also can help to reduce swelling by assisting with lymph drainage.
Otherwise, many of the claims about the many benefits of elastic taping are simply that – just claims. Here are the facts that we know about elastic taping:
- Using elastic taping to facilitate muscular contraction has “no or only negligible effects on muscle strength.”
- Beneficial effects of elastic taping are more likely to be found in studies that have a lower quality. Higher quality studies that provide more reliable information have found little support for its use.
- Using rehabilitation exercises alone was just as effective at reducing pain as doing exercises with elastic tape application.
A common phrase uttered at our offices is this: You don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, in this case, it is possible that the use of elastic tape is beneficial. It simply may be that it’s reason for benefit has not yet been determined through sound clinical research.
After reading all of this, you might be asking yourself, “I wonder if Kinetic Edge uses elastic taping techniques.” The answer to that question is: YES… in some circumstances.
At times we will compare a client’s pain and function during clinical exercise activities before and after the application of elastic tape. If either is improved as determined by client feedback, we may use this intervention for a period of time.
The fact that elastic tape stretches with movement means that it doesn’t impede movement… at least not much. There are some cases where movement impedance is desired, at least temporarily, such as immediately following an ankle sprain. In that case, we use traditional athletic tape (i.e. strapping tape) to protect the supportive ligaments during functional, weight bearing activities. Later, once stability increases the application of elastic tape may be an appropriate intervention.
In other words, our philosophy is that supporting the unstable ankle is more important early on than applying elastic tape, even though the elastic taping technique could provide a benefit in reducing swelling. What good is it to reduce swelling if the unstable ankle continues to get stressed with less support, which is sure to contribute to continued swelling?
We have also found that the stretching quality of the elastic tape can facilitate joint positioning and postural awareness. If this outcome is desired, which is often the case, (for example, with a sore shoulder) the use of elastic tape can provide some temporary benefit. However, I emphasize the word “temporary.” Ultimately, it is the role of our muscular system to support the skeletal structure, so our doctors of physical therapy use specific therapeutic exercise activities – the right treatment for the right person at the right time – to enable dynamic neuromuscular stability to occur. And eventually we wean a person off these means of external support, whether that be functional bracing or use of elastic tape.
A word of caution is necessary: Elastic tape is not a cure-all. In fact, I would suggest that, while it is a fun tool, it is far from necessary. The most important thing any individual can do to rehabilitate following an injury is to train their neuromuscular system so that it can function efficiently and effectively, which is the most important value that rehabilitation with an expert physical therapist or occupational therapist can provide.