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  • Writer's pictureClaire Callaghan

Sports tape - how it works, when it works and making it personal

Claire Callaghan


Back in my Uni days, I did a dissertation on ankle taping and bracing. For our study, our group of girls roped fellow students into having their ankles taped or braced, had them jog around a field, and measured what was actually going on. We looked at the merits of both, the limitations they impose and whether or not they actually work. The result? Yes, both can be helpful in limiting movement and creating a feeling of stability, but the picture is much more nuanced than just slapping a brace or sports tape and crossing your fingers. It's vital to know when and how to use them, and even when not to.

Taping tennis elbow shoulder
Belinda Bencic sporting some elaborate tape to support her shoulder and arm in her match against the World No 1 Photograph by Author, 2023.

25 years later, on my recent trip to Wimbledon, it was fascinating to see the various support used by the world's best tennis players. Interestingly, there's limited evidence to show if or how it works. That said, clinically and anecdotally, it remains popular at all levels of activity, and I've found that in the right patient, it can be really effective. More 'real world' studies are needed.


You should never 'just tape' - the sports stars wearing it are almost certainly not relying solely on tape. It needs monitoring, and should be used alongside other proven treatments like exercise and advice.


Tape can help provide:


  • A feeling of stability

  • Proprioceptive input (A sensory input which helps the brain detect where the joint is, how it's working and how the muscles are working)

  • A feeling of support


Taping for ankle support
Taping can give you a feeling of stability and support

It's possible it helps offload painful tissues, but we just don't know for sure. I suspect that the taping above is aiming not only to help Bencic facilitate the right muscles, but also offload some of the sensitive nerves in the arm. For players like Bencic, or those struggling with injury, the psychological benefit is potentially huge.


There's academic debate around how it mechanically affects the joints and muscles. In my practice, I can't see that it changes joint position. However, it does give sensory feedback it gives to the brain. It's proposed that this might make the area feel more 'normal', giving you the confidence to move well.


How to tape shoulder elbow Physio
Tape can be an easy, quick and cheap win. You need clinical guidance to get the most out of it.

6 reasons to tape

  • Tape can be a great way to try providing support without having to do anything drastic or expensive

  • It helps clinicians and coaches work out if facilitating muscles and joints to work in a different, better position helps with stability, pain and performance

  • It's relatively cheap, painless, takes minimal time, is repeatable

  • It can be removed quickly (though don't rip it off! Gently does it).

  • You can do it yourself, or show someone what to do to help you.

  • Possibly it's biggest benefit is psychological. This feeling of reassurance applies whether you need it for daily activities (like helping you walk more normally on a sprained ankle) or creating power through your forehand or golf swing.


It works best when you have had a clinical diagnosis by a Physio or Sports Medic. Your Physio can then show you how to apply the tape specific to your needs.


How to tape (the answer isn't always a YouTube video!)

There are different ways to tape for different problems, so a generic taping for something such as 'tennis elbow' won't necessarily work for everyone. Your Physio will be skilled in altering the taping to what you need. It can be different, even for the same injury.

For example, I won't always tape a tennis elbow in the same way, and I'll do more tissue offloading when the nerves are involved, or do some tape above or below the elbow if these areas are affecting how the arm moves overall. I sometimes recommend an elbow sleeve, especially if the weather's a factor (click to find out why Novak Djokovic sometimes uses a sleeve - I'll cover sleeves and braces in future blogs). Online sources can sometimes be helpful (check out Dynamic Tape and videos, developed by a credible Physio) but sometimes tape can actually get in the way of normal joint movement. For example, some tapings I've seen online (and on patients) for plantar fascia pain or achilles pain actually stop the ankle and foot moving properly, which could make things worse! You can use tape to 'offload' some structures, such as the nerves down the arm. The bottom line:

  • See a Physio or Sports Medic

  • Get a diagnosis

  • It's best to tape only if you're advised to, using a specific taping shown by your Physio that's personal to you

Taping achilles calf strain calf sleeve Physio
Sleeves are sometimes used in preference to tape. It's vital to know which is best for you. Photograph by Author, 2023.

Which tape?

Different tapes work differently, with different stiffness and elasticity. A current preferred tapes for larger joints is Rocktape. Dynamic Tape is also worth looking at if you like pattern.

Use a more mobile tape for supporting joints which need to still move (e.g. the tennis shoulder or sporting ankle), a stiffer one like zinc oxide works well for limiting movement (painful fingers and toes).


Other 'rules'

  • Do no harm. Tape should not produce or worsen pain

  • Check for allergies to glue and fabrics. Some skin conditions, e.g. eczema or psoriasis, may not cope well.

  • Minimise body hair in the taped area to help adhesion (I've also seen a few huge rugby players jump off the couch when their mate rips the tape off!)

  • Take it off after 24 hours. It won't be working effectively after that, and can irritate the skin. If you're sweaty or hot, it needs to come off sooner.

  • Take it off if you shower - it's not great for skin and loses it's ability to work when it's wet

  • Use a tape appropriate to the joint - a wider one for bigger joints, may need to split in 2 or 3 for small areas e.g. fingers

  • Remove it gently and slowly

  • Never "just tape". Always use in conjunction with exercises, physiotherapy and clinically prescribed treatments.

  • Don't become dependent on it. If you are, you need to look at how you can strengthen and improve stability. It's not a long term solution.

References


  1. Andryskova, A and Lee, J-H. The guidelines for application of kinesiology tape for the prevention and treatment of sports injuries. Healthcare 2020. Jun: 8 (2): 144 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7349891/10.3390/healthcare8020144

  2. Bicici et al. Effect of athletic taping and kinesiotaping on measurements of functional performance in basketball players with chronic inversion ankle sprains. Int J Sports Phys Ther 2012. 154-66.

  3. Bittencourt et al. Dynamic taping and high frontal plane knee projection angle in female volleyball athletes. https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/51/4/297.3

  4. Chen,W. et al. Effects of kinesio taping on the timing and ratio of vastus medialis obliquus and vastus lateralis for person with patellofemoral pain. Journal of Biomechanics. 2010. 40(S2).

  5. Fratocchi, G et al. Influence of Kinesio Taping applied over biceps brachii on isokinetic elbow peak torque. A placebo controlled study in a population of young healthy subjects. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 2013. 16(3):245-9

  6. Gianola, S. et al. Kinesiotaping for rotator cuff disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD012720.pub2

  7. Hsu, Y., Chen, W., Lin, H., Wang, W.T.J., & Shih, Y., (2008). The effects of taping on scapular kinematics and muscle performance in baseball players with shoulder impingement syndrome. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology. 19, 1092-1099

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