By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS, DACBSP
Since the 2012 Olympic games, you have seen more and more athletes competing with a variety of designs of brightly colored tape on various areas of their body. Why are they using the tape and does it actually work? Kinesio-tape, or K-tape as it has come to be known, is much different then the athletic tape applied by a certified athletic trainer to, for instance, stabilize an ankle to prevent a sprain.
Kinesio-tape provides support to the injured area while allowing full range of motion. The tape is used to decrease pain, unload tissues via decompression, and provide a novel stimulus that improves body awareness. Reduction in pain and improved body awareness occur through the connection of nerve endings with the brain. Once the tape is applied to the skin, the nerve endings detect the pull or tug from the elastic tape and send this message to the brain, essentially beating the pain signal. This is the neurosensory component of the tape.
The primary benefit of elastic Kinesio-tape over traditional athletic tape is that Kinesio-tape is designed to allow freedom of movement. This elasticity also creates a lifting effect on the skin to allow for better lymphatic drainage and blood flow to help enhance the healing process. These are two pivotal components that allow swelling to drain faster and improve nutrient absorption to the tissues during the healing process. This lifting or decompression aspect of Kinesio-tape is the opposite of traditional manual therapy techniques that are compressive.
Kinesio-tape has actually been around for quite a while. Dr. Kenzo Kase, a Japanese chiropractor and acupuncturist, developed Kinesio-tape in 1979. He also created the method for its artistic application. Dr. Kase’s original theory behind the flexible tape was that it would stimulate improved circulation to an injured tissue due to its ability to pull on the skin. Between the skin and muscle is a fine network of “plumbing” that drains fluid that is accumulated after vigorous exercise or injury. Kinesio-tape lifts the skin and attached tissue covering a muscle so that “lymph” fluids can move more freely in and around the tissue. In other words, it keeps the plumbing clear to drain the fluid and prevent swelling and chronic inflammation from accumulating.
Dr. Kase lists the following as the four major functions of Kinesio-taping:
Supporting the muscle — Proper taping improves the muscle’s ability to contract even when it’s weakened; reduces a feeling of pain and fatigue; and protects the muscle from cramping, over-extension, and over-contraction.
Removing congestion to the flow of body fluids — Kinesiology tape improves blood and lymphatic circulation and reduces inflammation and excess chemical buildup in the tissue.
Activating the endogenous analgesic system — “Endogenous” refers to something that is self-originating, and calling something “analgesic” means that it can relieve pain in a conscious person. So, this means that the tape must facilitate the body’s own healing mechanisms, a central focus in chiropractic medicine.
Correcting joint problems — The goal is improving range of motion and adjusting misalignments that result from tightened muscles.
Fascia or myofascia is a very important piece in the taping application (fascia is a complex network of densely woven tissues similar to a complex spider web that connects body parts to one another. It is what you are affecting when you use a foam roller, for instance). Obviously, the health of your fascia is integral in the development of properly coordinated movement patterns. When kinesio-tape is applied to the skin, it creates a neurological response, providing a change in the way that fascia functions, thus changing the way that movement patterns are performed. We can essentially allow for better muscle activation and promote better movement patterns with the application of kinesio-tape.
Currently there continues to be controversy regarding the effectiveness of kinesio-tape. There has been an increase in the volume of research that points to positive outcomes for pain control, enhanced reduction in swelling, and improved motor control. The jury is still out regarding the areas of performance enhancement and improved strength.
Why is Kinesio-tape an important addition to the treatment plan for musculoskeletal injuries? Kinesio-tape adds a component not found in other treatment approaches; mainly it’s decompressive attributes. Kinesio-tape is an excellent complement to many of the more commonly used treatment methods and is certainly a better alternative to pharmaceutical narcotic pain medications.
In the end, I would not get decorated in kinesio-tape if the goal were to run faster, swim faster, throw harder, or hit a golf ball more accurately; I would put more time into training and practice. But, if you are in pain or are experiencing post-injury or post-operative swelling, adding Kinesio-tape to the rehabilitative process will assist in speeding the recovery. It may benefit you to speak to your healthcare provider about adding Kinesio-tape to your treatment plan.