Many athletes have walked through the athletic training room doors with requests like, "Can you tape my ankle (or wrist, knee, elbow, etc.) so I don't hurt it?" While taping was often the first strategy of the past, it is not always the best method of prevention or treatment.
The purpose of taping, or bracing, is to limit motion at a joint to protect injured soft tissue (ligaments and tendons). Tape is applied in a specific way that reinforces natural restraints and attempts to make up for any deficits due to injury. Taping and bracing work as long as the injury is not too severe and a knowledgeable individual uses the correct technique.
Taping is meant to be used short-term with the intention of decreasing the need for the extra support over time; about four to six weeks and supplemented with a strengthening program. For minor sprains or strains, tape would be sufficient.
Bracing is better for repeat injuries or more severe injuries that require long-term attention. Bracing is stronger than most tapings and will last longer before it loosens. If a joint has been injured multiple times or has undergone surgery and your physician recommends long-term support, then a brace is the best option.
Taping or bracing an injured joint does not fix the problem. It still needs to heal and regain the strength that was lost because muscle strength and agility are the keys to successful injury recovery and prevention. For this reason, athletes seeking to be taped on a daily basis should consult with their athletic trainer or other healthcare professional about possibly incorporating a strength program into their treatment.
Another trend among young athletes is asking to have healthy joints taped for injury prevention. Taping a healthy joint will not prevent injury.
It feels good and provides a psychological confidence boost, but offers no other health benefits. The natural restraints in the joint will function far better if unrestricted than with movement limiting tape. If a joint cannot be moved within an optimal range of motion, the force generated when using it is decreased. This will make power, speed and agility suffer.
Taping and bracing are intended to help in injury recovery rather than being relied on as the cure all for joint pain or injury prevention.
The way to return injured joints to their former glory is to build muscle, regain strength and flexibility, and be patient with recovery.
Returning too soon to activity can render even the best athletes useless no matter how much tape is used.
If you cannot use a joint without favoring it, or are having joint pain/issues, see your athletic trainer or other healthcare professional to rule out significant injury and to determine the proper treatment.
Monica Anderson is an athletic trainer with Susquehanna Health Sports Medicine and is the athletic trainer for the Williamsport Area High School.