Viewers of the London Olympic Games got used to seeing brightly colored Kinesio tape on the legs, arms and shoulders of elite athletes. This versatile medical tape, however, is used right here in Southern Oregon for people who are unlikely to make the Olympic team.
Kinesio tape is a stretchy, breathable, rehabilitative tape developed in the 1970s by Kenzo Kase, a Japanese chiropractor and acupuncturist. Kase designed his tape to have the elasticity and texture of human skin, a far cry from the rigid medical tapes in use at the time. Kinesio tape is used most frequently by health care professionals to speed up the healing process in muscles, tendons and bruises.
Physical therapists even use this tape to help correct posture.
"I roll forward, so my posture is terrible," says Nikki Sharp, a 37-year-old White City resident. "They put (tape) on both sides of my spine to hold my posture and 6 inches down starting at the top of my shoulders."
After years of slouching over a computer at an office job and what she believes is overuse from weightlifting at the gym, Sharp has developed neck and shoulder pain. Because Kinesio tape stretches, when she leans too far forward at her desk, she feels the stretch on her back and knows to straighten up.
"It gives me relief for a couple of days; my neck and shoulder stop hurting," says Sharp. "I'll have it taped twice a week for several weeks."
Taping opposing muscle groups on the same patient has dual objectives, says Sharp's physical therapist, Kathy Bowlin, who works at Jackson County Physical Therapy in Medford.
"In the case of the slouchy patient with the impingement, their chest is going to be short and tight," explains Bowlin. "Their postural muscles in the back tend to be lengthened and not as strong, so we can tape in the back to try to activate those postural muscles, to straighten them up, so the postural muscles will work harder, and then after we work on the soft tissue on the chest and try to relax and stretch it out, the taping on the front can help it to stay more lengthened and relaxed."
The secret to accomplishing these widely differing objectives is to apply this stretchable tape with different levels of tension. For the postural correction, tension of greater than 50 percent is used. To keep muscles relaxed or elongated, a tension of between 15 and 25 percent is used.
"The more stretch we use, the more we're trying to mechanically correct, the less stretch tries to lift," says Bowlin.
The tape's elasticity can also accomplish a completely different function.
"You can use it over a huge bruise, over swelling, because part of the elastic properties will lift the skin a little bit away from the tissue and allow fluid to move more freely through: More fluid, more blood flow helps healing," says Bowlin. "I've seen it used over a bruise in a fanlike configuration. When they peeled it off, you could see where underneath the taping the bruise was gone, but (in the places in between) it was still there."
It's not clear which of these applications — postural correction, muscle activation, injury recovery — was the objective of many athletes in last summer's Olympics, or whether it improved performance, a claim made by some athletes and their coaches.
"Light elastic taping is controversial now, whether or not it's placebo, or whether putting it on really does work," says Kelly Lange, an Ashland chiropractor. "For people applying it on their own, for performance, there's no science behind that "… but for practitioners applying it properly, there is a science behind it. It works."
Lange uses Kinesio tape on athletes, but in an innovative way that the tape's makers may not have envisioned. She is the medical director for the Pine to Palm 100-mile footrace that runs through the mountains from Williams to Ashland. Kinesio tape, she believes, is ideal for taping foot blisters on runners who still have many miles to run.
"You can see through it, so it has a breathe to it, so the skin won't hold moisture," says Lange. "It's very easy to handle; it has an inherent elasticity to it when it's put on at 10 percent (tension); it has a recoil to it."
In this application, the patient wants something that will stay on for hours under rough conditions.
"Conventional athletic tape, when it gets sweaty, will fall off after about four hours," explains Lange. "Kinesio tape, it's heat-activated, so the longer it's on, potentially the better it will stick."
Kinesio tape is not, however, the next super cure for all ailments, says Bowlin.
"It is not a cure. It is used in conjunction with other physical-therapy modalities: exercise, manual-therapy techniques," says Bowlin. "It's just another tool in our toolbox that we have available."
For more information on Kinesio tape, see www.kinesiotaping.com/global/corporation.html