Taping Away the Pain, A Sticky Issue

Therapeutic tape has a long history in the world of physical therapy. In the 80’s and 90’s it was more commonly called McConnell tape. This tape was popular in the treatment of painful joints that were deemed weak and unstable, mostly knees and shoulders. The downfall of McConnell tape was two fold. First, it was proven bogus by many studies that showed that bones (patellas, scapulas, vertebra, etc.) could not be moved or held in place by tape. Second, and somehow more significant, it was uncomfortable, ugly and lacked a catchy name.

Fast forward to the marketing savvy 21st century, and tape is back! But, this time, its biggest limiting factors have been remedied. Now tape is colorful, comfortable and has cool names like “kinesio tape”, “rock tape” and “spider tape”. Along with the new look, the new tape now claims to improve performance, decrease swelling, remove lymph, reduce injury, and even re-educate nerves. As for any clinical proof for the old and new claims, that remains to be seen. But, who needs that when Olympic and professional athletes use it?

So what does tape really do and why to physical therapists, athletic trainers, chiropractors, physicians and coaches deem it so useful? To answer the first question, tape, especially when applied in a manor that wrinkles or pulls on skin, stimulates proprioceptors. These microscopic mechanisms include Merkel’s disks, Meissner’s corpuscles, Pacinian corpuscles and Ruffini endings. When these receptors are stimulated by tape (or braces, wraps, tights and/or sleeves), they override the pain response so you feel the tactile stimulus instead. As for the reason why it is used by health care professionals, it is a combination of falling for the latest trend, focusing treatment on pain relief instead of function, and marketing.

Unfortunately for patients, there have been many gimmicks over the recent years (tape, needling, shoe inserts, lotions, machines, etc.) that the medical “experts” have allowed to take over their practices. If all you want is symptom modification, don’t waste your time at physical therapy or the chiropractor. You can buy kinesio tape, braces, lotions, shoe inserts and many other gimmicks at your local sporting goods or grocery store. If you really want to recover from an injury, or prevent one, find an expert that identify and treat the root cause of your symptoms, rather than just cover them up.

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