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That "magic tape" from the Olympics
We all saw those Olympic athletes with the colorful elastic tape applied to their shoulders, knees, and other body parts. Many people have wondered what that is all about. Is that tape a 'pain patch' of chemical analgesics? Does it actually support weak body parts? Or is it just a placebo that really does nothing except make the athletes think it was helping when, in reality, it actually does nothing… a sort of psychological crutch?
That tape is called "kinesiology tape," typically under the brand name KinesioTape. Kinesiology tape is used by many physical therapists to help the human body perform better. Is it merely a mind-over-matter placebo effect? Every treatment has a degree of placebo effect when the patient expects it to help them. But there does appear to be a real neurological and muscular effect from specific taping techniques. The elastic fibers of kinesiology tape is thought to place mechanical stresses on the skin over muscles that are tense or in spasm, stimulating nerve endings in the skin that can inhibit or quiet nerve inputs to underlying muscles. This can ease spasm and reduce tension. Conversely, certain tape placement stimulates nerves from the skin that can provide feedback to muscle to increase muscle activity for better coordinated contractions. This is a process of using nerve reflex inputs from the skin to the muscles to correct muscle function.
This started as a theory. But research has shown, using brain scans, measurable changes in brain activity in areas that control function of the muscles beneath the tape applied to the skin during these scans. Sometimes more rigid cloth tape is used to alter muscle function. Other times therapists use the more lightweight elastic kinesiology tape for more subtle effects. Tape is applied over the shoulder blade can improve muscle stability and coordination during shoulder action, such as we saw on the beach volleyball players in the Olympics. Tape is very commonly used at the knee to correct how thigh muscles coordinate the kneecap. Kneecap instability is a very common cause of knee problems, especially among young female athletes.
These taping methods do not mechanically hold bones in place like traditional sports tape. This type of tape alters how muscles coordinate their activity by stimulating nerves in the skin that provide feedback to the muscles. Kinesiology tape is also used to affect circulation. People with swelling and fluid accumulation due to sprains or lymphedema often find kinesiology tape can greatly reduce swelling and move fluids. Tape applied with a very subtle stretch in very precise directions seem to provide a slight "lift" to the skin, opening small vessels just beneath the skin where fluids drain from an extremity.
Kinesiology tape is not cheap. It requires precise skills to apply properly. It does not cure any ills. But it seems to greatly help some people overcome problems with pain, spasm, weakness, and swelling. It is but one more tool in the modern physical therapy toolbox.
Lauren Hebert, DPT, operates SmartCare Physical Therapy in Dixfield and Turner.