The Mystery and Science Behind Elastic Therapeutic Tape

The idea is newer than you might think, but the future is bright

Last month’s Winter Olympic Games saw 24-year-old figure skater Mirai Nagasu make history by becoming the first American woman to successfully complete a triple axel. Nagasu would eventually bring home the bronze medal for Team USA.

The next day, however, the focus centered on a long, dark band on Nagasu’s right leg—with the letters “USA” in the middle. Many debated the origins of the ‘tattoo’ until one company’s Twitter account cleared up the misconception—it wasn’t a tattoo at all. It was elastic therapeutic tape.

Over the past several years, this story has repeated itself on several occasions. Prominent athletes like Serena Williams, James Harden, or Mario Balotelli take the court or field with colorful strips or bands across their backs, shoulders, or knees. About ten years ago, the general public’s knowledge of elastic therapeutic tape was so limited that some social media users suspected that one college basketball player was using the tape to cover an objectionable tattoo at his coach’s orders.

Luckily, the depth of knowledge within the rehab community is a bit more impressive, though still far from conclusive. Some physical therapists embrace and swear by elastic therapeutic tape and its effects, while others largely dismiss the practice in favor of more conventional methods. Does one side have a stronger case than the other?

The Evidence
Originally developed in 1979 by Dr. Kenzo Kase, elastic therapeutic tape has been the source of considerable debate and controversy in its relatively short existence. Almost 40 years later, however, it’s hard to deny the popularity of the approach. According to one recent report, the global market for elastic therapeutic tape will triple over a 10-year period starting back in 2016 and concluding in 2025.

To summarize, elastic therapeutic taping seeks to improve blood flow and drainage by lifting the skin to create separation between the muscle and dermis layers. Whereas traditional athletic tape restricts blood flow and movement, Elastic therapeutic tape’s pliability allows for full range of motion.

Yet an analysis of the considerable research over the past ten years or so—the decade that will certainly be remembered as a “breakout” time for the practice—yields an equal amount of skepticism and praise.

As recently as 2012, a systematic review concluded there were “few high-quality” studies examining the use of elastic therapeutic tape following musculoskeletal injury. Since that time, the rehab community has certainly worked to improve the amount of available research, but the outcomes remain mixed.

A study from early 2015 (abstract only) found elastic therapeutic taping superior to minimal intervention for pain relief, but established no preference to other methods for reduction of pain or disability. Ultimately, the conclusion was that elastic therapeutic tape could be effective as an adjunct to exercise-based interventions.

But with the proliferation of Olympic and other world-class athletes utilizing the tape, it’s clearly having some effect on performance, or at the very least offering peace of mind or increased confidence.

The Argument for Taping

You may have noticed to this point in the article, we’ve referred to ‘elastic therapeutic taping’ rather than the more commonly known industry name. That’s because many people (until recently, including the author) don’t realize that term is specific to one company.

“Everybody calls it Kinesio taping,” admitted Dorothy Cole, coordinator for independent research for Kinesio. “But that’s our company’s name. Nobody else is supposed to use it, but…”

As a company, Kinesio sells therapeutic tape, but also offers education through Kinesio University and their professional organization known as Kinesio Taping Association International—Dorothy Cole’s area of focus. The company was founded by Dr. Kase, the original founder and inventor of therapeutic taping. Perhaps that’s what the term and the company’s name has become synonymous with therapeutic taping. Cole, however, was quick to point out a few key differences between Dr. Kase’s original mission, Kinesio as an organization, and the perception and reputation of therapeutic taping at large.

“Dr. Kase originally invented (taping) for elderly patients with osteoarthritis,” she said. “Not long after that, one of his relatives used the tape to treat sumo wrestlers—they were actually the first athletes to use Kinesio tape.”

While things build slowly in the medical world, highly competitive sports are largely copycat organizations. Just as numerous franchises will attempt to mimic a successful organization’s strategy for winning, athletes who saw Serena Williams and other highly successful professionals using therapeutic tape decided they, too, should be utilizing the modality in their own careers.

“We remain medically focused,” said Cole. “But the sports world was primarily responsible for the spread of awareness.”

Perhaps the biggest way the company spreads medical awareness is through its Research Symposium, a semiannual event that rotates between U.S. and international venues. The most recent symposiums were held in Tokyo in 2015 and Honolulu in 2017. The location for 2019 is still being determined. “There are different locations bidding for it—we’re a little like the Olympics in that way,” added Cole.

Typically held in the latter half of the year, the two-day event features speakers from throughout the United States and around the world, presenting new research or new innovations or workshops. Researchers come from as far as Australia and Israel to present at each symposium.

“I actually think in some ways, we’re better known outside the United States—at least on the medical level,” said Cole. “We have more doctors working with us outside of the U.S., there’s a higher level of scientific activity.”

And while the sports world does an excellent job of spreading general public awareness of therapeutic taping, Dorothy Cole and the team at Kinesio continue to focus on the impacts for the medical community. The most recent symposium featured presentations on the effects of taping as it pertains to the nervous system, total knee replacement, and even lactation.

“In my department, we continue to work on expanding knowledge,” Cole concluded. “That’s going to be our primary focus for the future.”

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