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Kinesio tape is a popular trend in the treatment of common injuries that athletes suffer from. Although the tape has been popularized by the athletic world, most notably Kerri Walsh’s shoulder that is always taped in some Kerri Walsh “spider” fashion, its use stretches beyond athletics. Most soft tissue (muscle, ligament, tendon, fascia) conditions have a protocol for the application of kinesio tape to help relieve pain and improve function. But, if you are like some of my patients you may be skeptical of the tape and think that people like to wear it just because it looks cool. So what is this tape? What does it do? Is it actually effective at making changes to promote healing or improve range of motion?
Kinesio tape was invented by a Japanese chiropractor Kenso Kase in the 1970s. He wanted a tape that would help promote healing but wouldn’t restrict motion. Unlike other athletic tapes, kinesio tape is very stretchy and doesn’t limit your motion. It is very soft and the adhesive on the back is swirled to help the tape lift the skin off the muscle and fascial tissue below it. If you are looking for tape to hold your ankle in place like a brace then this isn’t the tape you use.
The actual mechanism of how the tape works hasn’t been scientifically proven but there are several theories on how the tape helps the healing process. As I said before, the tape helps lift the skin off the muscles and fascia. In doing so there is an increase of space between the skin and the connective tissues, vessel, and muscles which helps improve mobility and lymphatic (waste removal system of the body) and venous (blood) flow. The tape is also said to help decrease pain, improve a weak muscle, or inhibit a spasmed muscle. The tape also has the added benefit that it gives you constant input into your nervous system in that area, which research is finding is one of the biggest effects tape has on your body.
Depending on how the tape is applied determines the different effects. For example, if you went up for a layup and landed on your opponent’s foot and rolled your ankle, your ankle will most likely swell. You can use the kinesio tape to help decrease swelling and bruising by cutting the tape into multiple tails and placing it on the skin to promote “drainage.”
If you have a weak muscle or a muscle that isn’t doing the job it’s supposed to do you can put it on to help promote that muscle and “wake it up.” If the muscles are really tight, say from a car accident whiplash injury, then you can put it on another way to help calm the muscles down. It can also be used to increase joint stability (but it won’t be as limiting as typical athletic tape).
The research on kinesio tape is just beginning but the results look promising. Kinesio tape placed on the quadriceps has improved jump height and muscle motor unit recruitment. Kinesio tape on the knee for patellofemoral pain syndrome (a common front knee discomfort) and shoulder impingement (a front shoulder pain when raising your arm over your head) have shown faster improvements than those being treated with strengthening exercises alone. One of the biggest results showed that those being taped for plantar fascia showed a 16% decrease in thickness of the plantar fascia.
So, is the tape all it’s cracked up to be? I think there are definite benefits when it is applied correctly to an appropriate problem. I have personally seen swelling and bruising decrease dramatically, pain go away, and biomechanics improve after the tape has been applied. I have also seen no changes when I’ve used the tape. More research is needed but overall it’s use can be an adjunct to other treatments to help promote healing.