You have probably seen the colorful strips of tape on professional athletes on television over the last few years, but you probably don’t know much about what it is or how it works. This kind of specialized athletic tape is called kinesiology tape and it comes in various brands (Kinesiotape, Rocktape, Kinesio Tex. etc.) each of which has its own colors, sizes, and designs. Although there are some small differences between brands (amount of elasticity, amount of adhesive) they all tend to work in the same way and have the same effects on how the human body works.
Kinesiology tape is a type of athletic tape designed to be thin enough to mimic the skin so that it can help people move with better movement patterns to prevent pain/injury while still feeling normal and not restricted by heavy tape. It is specially made by weaving both cotton and nylon fibers in such at way that it can stretch lengthwise but not across its width, which allows it to stretch along with the human body as it moves. This allows people to move freely while the tape is still correcting faulty mechanics and encouraging normal movement patterns through the recoil of the elastic fibers in the tape.
Kinesiology tape helps people through two main mechanisms: 1) Soft tissue decompression, and 2) Neurosensory input. In the first instance, soft tissue decompression has to do with the many layers of skin, which we can think of like the layers of a cake. When we have an injured area, the layers of skin and underlying tissue, or fascia as it is called, tend to stick to one another, compressing all the structures in between. These layers of skin also contain our nerve endings, so when the skin is compressed, these nerves are irritated and send a “pain” signal up to our brains, which turns the muscles off in the injured area, causing weakness and poor movement patterns.
However, when we slightly stretch out and apply kinesiology tape over the skin, the tape recoils (pulls back) and lifts up the skin, decompressing the nerves underneath and giving us relief from pain. Similarly, we also have blood vessels that travel through the layers of skin, so as the skin is decompressed with the tape, it also opens up these blood vessels, which improves our circulation and decreases swelling in the injured area.
The other benefit of kinesiology tape is that of neurosensory input. In the same way that the tape recoils on the skin and decompresses the nerves that sense pain, it also pulls the skin and stimulates the nerves underneath that tell the brain how our bodies are moving. This improves our sense of proprioception, or our awareness of the human body in space, and therefore tells our brain the location of our arms or legs without even looking at them.
Here’s an example of how an injury leads to dysfunction and how this form of taping can help. If someone injures their shoulder, their normal response is to subconsciously change the way they move their arm to perform reaching in a pain free way. Then, they continuously repeat this new movement, which is reinforcing bad habits and making them their new “normal” way of moving. However, this faulty pattern will only lead to further injury, and they must be retrained in the right way to move.
Kinesiology tape can help in a few ways: First, it helps relieve the pain and swelling at the injured shoulder through decompression, and decrease inhibition of the injured muscles. Second, as the pain decreases the muscles can begin to turn back on, and now they can perform specific strength exercises targeting these weak muscles so that they can perform their jobs correctly again. Lastly, by properly taping the shoulder to prevent poor movement patterns, we can retrain the muscles and brain to move in the right ways so that these become our normal pain free ways of moving again. This should lead to complete recovery from injury.
Therefore, kinesiology tape can be a helpful tool in retraining us to move our bodies correctly in a pain free way. However, you should always keep in mind that it is very different from normal athletic tape, and therefore you shouldn’t try and tape yourself without proper instruction. There are many different ways of taping for many different mechanical issues of the human body, and you should be evaluated first by a physical therapist to see what is causing your problem and then instructed in what type of taping will help you.