Updated July 2019
Therapeutic and athletic taping involve the use of tape application directly on a person’s skin to protect injured structures, influence pain, or influence function and movement. There are a number of reasons why people may choose to use taping as part of their treatment, and there are many proposed effects of taping. However, to simplify, athletic taping is typically used for one of three main reasons:
1) Athletic Taping to Stabilize and Support an Injured Structure
The stability of the joints in our body depend on the size, shape, and arrangement of the joint surfaces, but also on structures such as ligaments (which connect bone to bone) and the tone and integrity of the surrounding muscles. Injury to any of these structures can be painful in and of itself but can also reduce the stability of a joint, contributing to further pain, and putting the area at risk for further injury.
Taping can be used to support joints and unload injured structures, allowing better healing of those structures. When taping to support or stabilize, non-elastic (white zinc oxide) athletic tape is typically used. The rigidity of this type of tape makes it the most effective at limiting the motion of a joint or structure needing protection. Even the most rigid of tapes eventually stretch. Depending on the level of activity and force going through the tape, taping may be effective for only a few hours and many athletes reapply tape part way through sport.
2) Athletic Taping to Reduce the Load Through Painful Structures
Not all pain comes from an acute, single injury. Often times, the way we move repetitively, or over long periods of time can put excessive stress on different structures of the body which can in turn cause pain.
While an effective, long lasting treatment for these types of pain typically involves movement retraining and muscle strengthening to change the loading pattern, taping can be an effective way of unloading these painful structures for the interim.
Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) can be caused by excessive prolonged tension on the medial patellofemoral ligament (MPFL). In this case, tape or bracing can help hold the patella (knee cap) medially (in the direction of the other knee) in order to take some of the stress off the MPFL and reduce pain. Following this temporary treatment, movement retraining, strengthening and stretching are effective at reducing the rate of recurring pain. The tape used for these purposes is often non-elastic zinc oxide tape, or non-elastic leukotape, as the goal of taping is to create a mechanical change.
3) Athletic Taping to Facilitate Movement, Muscle Activation, and Appropriate Postures
While there are many theories as to the exact mechanism and the physiology, there are many people who find athletic taping effective at achieving these goals.
One such theory is that taping can provide an added stimulus to the body which can increase the individual’s proprioception. Proprioception refers to the sense of where your body (or body parts) are in space, the way they are moving, and with what force they are moving. Although proprioception is a sense we often take for granted, it is a very important concept in physiotherapy as it can be subtly or more significantly impaired with a variety of neurological conditions, and even in relatively minor musculoskeletal injuries such as ankle sprains.
When taping for these purposes, elastic tape is often used, including popular brands such as Kinesiotape (K-tape) and Rock Tape which are often recognizable by their bright colours. These tapes are not effective at mechanically maintaining a new posture. The theory behind how they work is that skin and muscle receptors feel the tape stretch when a poor posture occurs, which then can cause muscles to fire and improve the posture to reduce/eliminate the stretch sensation. Depending on the exact goal of the tape job, more rigid types of tape such as non-elastic leukotape may also be appropriate and can cause mechanical change in posture for short periods of time.
It is important to consider that not all injuries are appropriate to tape, but through a thorough assessment, your physiotherapist can help you determine if and what type of athletic taping may be appropriate for you. Keep in mind that athletic taping is never a cure in and of itself or a replacement for rehabilitation and exercising!
Basset K.T., Lingman S.A., & Ellis R.F. (2010). The use and treatment efficacy kinaesthetic taping for musculoskeletal conditions: a systematic review. New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy 2010, 38(2), 56-62.
Stephen Baker graduated from Western University with a Masters of Physical Therapy. He has a passion for helping those with neck, hand or knee injuries return to their daily adventures. Book with Stephen today.