When kids get scrapes, it’s Band-Aids to the rescue. Though athletes can still use Band-Aids to cover cuts, they turn to athletic tape to for more serious boo-boos. Indeed, athletes worldwide— from high school heroes to international phenoms— use tape to help support injured joints, overstretched ligaments, worn muscles, and nearly every body part in-between.

Tale of the Tape — Why It Matters

A sprained ankle is one of the most common injuries in sports. Adding insult to injury, athletes with prior sprains are particularly prone to repeat damage, especially if they return to the field without fully healingTreatment of common deficits associated with chronic ankle instability. Holmes, A., Delahunt, E. School of Physiotherapy and Performance Science, University College Dublin. Sports Medicine 2009;39(3):207-24.. One group of researchers found that by using athletic tape, people with chronic ankle instability can decrease their likelihood of re-injuryEffect of ankle taping on mechanical laxity in chronic ankle instability. Firth, B.L., Dingley, P., Davies, E.R., et al. Department of Physiotherapy, Charing Cross Hospital, Imperial College Healthcare. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 2010 Nov;20(6):416-21.. While tape isn’t a shortcut to recovery (unless, of course, we find a brand that speeds up time), it does provide an extra line of defense for those at high risk.

In addition to ankles, athletic tape is commonly used on wrists, shins, and fingers to provide added support. Athletic tape is usually made from cotton, making it sweat resistant as it helps stabilize trouble areas. Some tapes are designed to adhere directly to the skin (ideal for smaller jobs) while others only stick to themselves (usually on larger joints that use a pre-wrap for under the tape). A word to the wise: when it comes to standard athletic tape, you tend to get what you pay for; cheaper tape usually means lower-quality adhesive.

Beyond the standard tape varieties is Kinesio Tape. While most athletic tape promotes rigidity, the elastic Kinesio Tape is designed to stretch with and support muscles as they move. The manufacturers even claim it also reduces overall muscle fatigue, re-educates injured muscles, and improves circulation. Its effectiveness in some of these areas is up for debate, and the tape has been shown to produce little added benefit when it comes to improving muscular performanceEffect of Kinesio Taping on muscle strength in athletes-a pilot study. Fu, T.C., Wong , A.M., Pei, Y.C., et al. Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Chang Gung University. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 2008 Apr;11(2):198-201.. And while traditional nonelastic athletic tape may support muscles and help prevent sprains (namely in the ankle), studies suggest that Kinesio tape cannot provide the same supportEffects of kinesio tape compared with nonelastic sports tape and the untaped ankle during a sudden inversion perturbation in male athletes. Briem, K., Eythorsdottir, H., Magnusdottir, R.G., et al. University of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland. Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 2011 Aug;41(8):621. That said, its ability to reduce pain is well heralded among athletes, and researchers at Georgia’s Winn Army Community Hospital found a reduction in tenderness after applying the tape to subjects rehabilitating injured shouldersThe clinical efficacy of kinesio tape for shoulder pain: a randomized, double-blinded, clinical trial. Thelen, M.D., Dauber, J.A., Stoneman, P.D. Physical Therapy Service, Winn Army Community Hospital. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy 2008 Jul;38(7):389-95..

Taping Up — The Answer/Debate

Taping has obvious benefits for the injury-prone, and the big question revolves around choosing the right type for a given situation. With its stiff restrictive quality, standard athletic tape is effective in preventing movement where it needs to be prevented (though watch out— taping too tightly can restrict circulation, which can be dangerous and feel like a full-body turtleneck). Kinesio Tape, though perhaps not the cure-all the makers claim, allows for a full range of motion while supporting muscles during movement or therapeutic usage. No matter the need, athletic tape is a trusted resource for both playing it safe and looking Dick Butkus-cool.

Updated November 2011