K-taping offers a safe alternative to drugs for treating chronic pain.
Anyone who works with high-intensity athletes (e.g., CrossFitters) and endurance athletes (e.g., distance runners and triathletes) knows that most of them have some sort of chronic ailment. When people repeatedly push themselves to the limit, the body eventually breaks down, leading to injury and pain.
Athletes will often attempt to self-treat their injuries and pain so they can continue training. And unsurprisingly, many of these patients take either prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC) medication on a regular basis to control pain and inflammation. The use of such medications over long periods, however, does not come without risk and can have detrimental effects on health.1
But if medications should not be used over extended periods, what can be done instead? One safe alternative is using kinesiology tape (k-tape) over the site of pain. In individuals with chronic low-back pain, a study found that k-tape in conjunction with usual care resulted in a better pattern of abdominal muscle recruitment compared with pre-treatment measures.2 Another study found that regardless of the technique of application, k-tape was helpful in reducing pain and disability in individuals with chronic low-back pain. This effect was somewhat maintained up to eight weeks after the treatment ceased.3
The exact physiological mechanism of action for k-tape is unknown. While numerous studies have investigated the effect of k-tape on various parameters such as pain, inflammation, muscle function, and proprioception, there is little research on how it may alter them.
In a recent unpublished study in the U.S., researchers used ultrasound imaging to show that k-tape has a lifting effect on subcutaneous tissue layers. By imaging and comparing pre- and post-tape applications, researchers demonstrated visible changes in interstitial spaces. This preliminary finding is in line with the long-held belief that k-tape’s mechanism of action is partially achieved through decompression of local tissues.
Clinically, this may be the reason for dramatic changes in the reduction of swelling and hematomas with k-tape application. This lifting effect creates convolutions on the skin that potentially decompresses lymphatic vessels and facilitates the removal of exudates from the treated area.
This lifting effect is also thought to improve circulation locally, allowing ecchymoses to be cleared more efficiently. Finally, the lifting effect may simultaneously decrease pressure on superficial nociceptors and stimulate mechanoreceptors, leading to less perception of pain in the underlying tissue.
Applying k-tape for chronic pain
If someone is having chronic lower back pain, for example, put the athlete into a nonpainful position that allows for stretching of the lower back. This could be in a standing or sitting arrangement. In cases where it is painful for the patient to flex forward, have him or her lay on the side and bring the knees up toward the chest.
Apply one strip directly over the site of pain (called a “decompression strip”) with zero stretch on the tape. The tape should extend at least two inches beyond the focal site of pain on both sides.
Then surround the site of pain with two strips of tape with no stretch. These are called “stabilization strips.”
It is thought that decompression strips lift the skin and decrease pressure on irritated nerves. Stabilization strips provide neurosensory input into the area and trick the brain into ignoring the pain signals coming from the irritated tissue.
This technique, combining decompression and stabilization strips, not only works in the lower back but anywhere someone is having chronic or acute pain. If an area is too small for multiple stabilization strips, use fewer of them or none at all.
Finding low-risk, high-reward alternative treatments for athletes is a never-ending pursuit. K-tape is demonstrably effective in controlling chronic pain so they can continue pursuing their goals and staying active.
Edward Le Cara, DC, PhD, ATC, CSCS, recently sold his practice of 14 years in California and relocated to Dallas. He is the director of athletic training at The KinetikChain and the director of trans global education at RockTape. He can be contacted at email@example.com, on Twitter and Instagram at @drlecara, or through rocktape.com.
1 Peters HPF, Bos M, Seebregts L, et al. Gastrointestinal symptoms in long-distance runners, cyclists, and triathletes: prevalence, medication, and etiology. Am J Gastroenterol. 1999;(94):1570-1581.
2 Bae S, Lee J, Oh K, Kim K. The effects of kinesio taping on potential in chronic low back pain patients anticipatory postural control and cerebral cortex. J Phys Ther Sci. 2013;25(11):1367-1371.
3 Parreira Pdo C, Costa Lda C, Takahashi R, et al. Kinesio taping to generate skin convolutions is not better than sham taping for people with chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomised trial. J Physiother. 2014;60(2):90-96.