The chances are really good that you’ve seen a sport star on TV with colorful plasters on their arms or legs. This is called taping and it’s not there to make a fashion statement. It is a type of tape that is applied directly to your skin with the aim of protecting an underlying injury or even enhance performance. Physiotherapists use different kinds of tape in very effective ways to protect tissue and prevent injuries.

What exactly is tape?

Tape is a sports tape that is designed to provide drug-free pain relief and lightweight support to muscles, tendons, and ligaments that allows for full range of motion. Its a strip of material, typically used to hold or fasten something. The tape that is used in a physiotherapy setting is typically made of a blend of cotton, nylon or synthetic materials with adhesive. It’s made out of durable fabric and specially formulated adhesive that you can wear in comfort for days at a time, through showers and sweat alike.

That way it can stick to your skin, without having to fasten it. It is not the same as bandages, because a bandage doesn’t stick to your skin. Instead you can compare tape to a type of plaster. There are many types of plasters, but their main aim is usually to protect or cover an open wound. Whereas tape is not applied over wounds and has a completely different purpose.

Physiotherapists use taping as part of their treatment and rehabilitation process. It is the act of applying strips of tape to your skin or over a pre-wrap to keep bones and muscles in place. Often the tape is also called strapping. It is a temporary technique, that keeps on working hours and even a few days after your treatment session.

Why do we use tape?

Taping is a technique used by physiotherapists to treat various musculoskeletal conditions. It might look like a very superficial fix, but you’d be surprised at the amount of support it can give. As well as being a non-invasive treatment technique, it also has little to no side effects.

The two main reasons we use tape, or strapping is to encourage your recovery from an injury or to prevent injuries. It is shown that taping helps to relieve pain and limits instability. In a way, taping can be compared to wearing a brace. Using a brace while you recover from an injury is necessary at times. However, a brace can often feel very uncomfortable and limiting. It isn’t always practical to exercise or play sports in a brace. That is where taping comes in, it is much less obstructive, and it still gives the necessary support.

Effects of taping
  • Ease pain
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Supports injured joints
  • Assists with instability
  • Decrease swelling
  • Provides compression
  • Improve blood supply to injured tissue
  • Helps to improve nerve pain
  • Supports nerve interface tissue
  • Decrease muscle spasm
  • Stimulate muscle contraction
  • Prevent further injury
  • Maintain good biomechanics during movement

“Making recovery faster by adding 2% muscle power doesn’t seem like much, until you’re counting reaction time in milliseconds.”

The technique of applying tape

Our physiotherapists will always use taping or strapping as part of their treatment, in conjunction with other treatment techniques. They are qualified to know whether you will benefit from strapping, and exactly which type of tape to apply. Typically, it takes a few minutes to apply and lasts for a few days. It can be applied to all kinds of musculoskeletal injuries to help reduce pain, and give you a strong feeling of stability and support.

To start off with, your physiotherapist will need to evaluate your condition properly. They need to fully understand the type of injury they are dealing with, in order to know exactly what kind of tape to apply. For example: an ankle ligament sprain will require a different taping technique than a hamstring muscle tear. Then, your physiotherapist will prepare the area that needs to be strapped. You’ll be asked to expose the skin in the area and you might be asked to shave the hair in the area, as the adhesive sticks much easier on smooth and clean skin. Your skin will be cleaned and dried off. Sometimes, it is necessary to use an extra adhesive spray before applying the tape.

You will further be positioned in the correct way, and then the tape is expertly applied. Depending on the type of tape, your physiotherapist might apply an extra layer of under wrap, before applying the tape over it. Usually, people get up and say that the end result feels extremely supportive.

Different types of application

  • Rigid tape: This type of tape is not stretchy at all, thus the name rigid tape. It’s typically applied to inhibit unwanted movement and to support injured joints. Because of the rigidity of the tape, its more likely to irritate your skin and that is why it is used together with a layer of under wrap.
  • Kinesio tape: This tape is stretchy compared to rigid tape, and it often comes in different colours. Because it allows movement, its applied to limit or facilitate movement. This type of strapping works very well to support muscle or nerve injuries, and even improves normal movement.
  • Dynamic tape: The only way dynamic tape differs from Kinesio tape, is that it allows movement in both the vertical and horizontal directions. It supports and encourage movement.

Changes you’ll be able to see and feel

Around each joint in your body, there are different nerve endings that pick up movement, pain, pressure, and temperature. These are called mechanoreceptors and nociceptors. These nerve endings connect to nerves, which connects to your spinal cord, which in turn connects to your brain.

Pain gate theory

When tape is applied to your skin, the mechanoreceptors are stimulated. A special type of mechanoreceptor, called proprioceptive nerve endings, will also be stimulated with strapping. These sensors help your body to be aware of your position in the space around you. With any injury, your proprioception gets affected and that is often why your balance feels affected or why you feel very aware of the sore limb.

These receptors send signals through your nerves and spinal cord, all the way up to your brain. The same happens with the feeling of pain. This time, the nociceptors are stimulated, and they send signals up the same pathway. On the way up, these signals travel through different checkpoints, where only the most important signals continue on. Now, imagine both these signals travel up this pathway at the same time. Less pain signals will be able to pass through the checkpoints, meaning you will feel less pain. This is called the pain gate control theory. And this is how applying tape relieves pain.

Changes on a cellular level:

When an area in your body is injured, it typically feels sore, swollen or stiff. Often, due to the inflammation and swelling, there is a build-up of fluid around or inside it. With normal joint movement, the fluid and blood in our tissue circulates and give our tissue the nutrients it needs. However, if there is a build up of fluid, it causes pain due to the increased pressure. The extra fluid build-up prevents normal cellular healing, because dead cells can’t be carried away or white blood cells can’t reach the area.

It is a known fact that circulation improves with movement. So, when tape is applied, it causes a lifting effect in your skin and superficial layers of tissue, which encourages the normal exchange of fluid on a cellular level and decreases a build-up. Ultimately, this eases your pain and speed up your tissue’s recovery.

What taping will feel like:

You’ll feel a comfortable, but strong pressure or compression from the tape, directly where it has been stuck to your skin. It is supposed to be applied with as little pain as possible and leave you feeling better. Taping can be applied to more than one area at a time. It is always part of a combined treatment session, which will include certain massage or soft tissue techniques and exercises to improve your overall pain and mobility.

At the end of the session, your physiotherapist will ask you to test the affected movement again to compare what you are feeling. You’ll feel an instant change and improvement. At most, strapping can leave you feeling slightly limited or stiff, but that is often to protect an injured joint. Give your physiotherapist feedback about what you are feeling as it helps to grade your discomfort. You should watch out for skin irritation or any allergic reactions.

How long does it take to apply tape?

Often, it takes a few minutes to prepare the area and apply the tape. It can be applied at any time during your treatment session, but is often applied at the end.

How many times should I be taped to feel like it’s working?

You will feel the effect of tape immediately, however it works best if it can be administered repeatedly for a few weeks. The tape can last for up to a week. The effect of the strapping often feels like it wears off, because you get used to it. That is why its adapted in each treatment session.

Your physiotherapist will discuss a treatment plan with you, to give you an idea of how long it will take for your condition to improve and how often treatment is needed. In some cases we’ll need 6-8 sessions. Mostly we see you twice during your first week, and once a week for the next two weeks and then once every second week in the next month.

What can I do at home to ensure taping is effective?

Unfortunately, the effect of taping might be temporary if the real cause of the problem isn’t addressed. At Well Health Pro, your physiotherapist will look at the bigger picture and discuss the causes of your pain with you. With physiotherapy treatment, it is important to note that taping is used as a tool to achieve a desired goal. Taping is something you could become dependent on and that is why it is important to work with your physiotherapist to treat each component of your injury.

Remember, you see your physiotherapist for an hour at a time. A big part of your improvement takes place in the hours after your treatment. There are a few things you can do at home to make sure your treatment is effective:

  • Do your prescribed home exercises and stretches
  • Make sure you get good quality sleep and nutrition, as this also helps with recovery
  • Discuss your use of medication with your physiotherapist
  • Your physiotherapist will advise you on whether you should exercise or not

Cost of tape

There are certain medical aid rates for taping as a treatment, but they are always used as part of a complete treatment consultation. So, you will never be paying for only taping.

Taping in isolation will not fix your problem. It’s the complete treatment package that shows the real improvement.

Medical Aid Code – 407

The description for the code 407 is: immobilisation. This means that something was immobilised (prevented to move). This code describes the property of protecting injured tissue. It is used when any type of tape is applied, because of the immobilising effect it has on your injury. Most good medical aids offer re-imbursement for taping.

Does it make a difference to have an experienced physiotherapist apply strapping?

The experience and skill of your physio makes all the difference to identify and apply the technique accurately and with precision. This is something that you could do by yourself or copy from a YouTube video, but you might feel it is ineffective or risk making it even worse.

Our physiotherapists have years of clinical experience and in depth knowledge of your body’s anatomy. They understand different painful conditions and injuries and will know exactly what kind of taping will be suitable for you. If your physiotherapist feels it is appropriate, they can teach you how to strap yourself. Especially, when you might have to do in the future, just before a game or event.

We’ve found many patient try taping themselves, but they missed the most important step in the diagnostic process – understand the scope and stage of healing you’re in. Applying the wrong type of tape or over the wrong areas can cause more harm. Know what you’re dealing with, before you start taping.

Conditions that respond well to taping

These are just a few well known conditions for which taping is used as a form of treatment. There are many other conditions and injuries that can benefit from strapping.

Contra-indications to taping

  • Previous allergic reactions to plaster/latex

  • Open wounds

  • Skin infections

Taping Q&A

Strapping typically lasts for three to five days, even if you shower or swim with it.

Yes, it usually lasts well even if it gets wet. When submerged in water for a long time, it might come off sooner.

It is exactly the same thing, just different terms. Often, different suppliers might call it different things, but the effect stays the same.

No, ideally, you should not be feeling pain or too much discomfort. If you feel like you are having an adverse reaction to the tape, then rather take it off and report it to your physiotherapist.

Usually, the tape comes off quite easily after it has been worn for a few days. It might leave a few traces of glue on your skin, but that can be washed off easily.

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