Two things I have been asked about since the Rio Olympics by Renee Sharp

The Rio Olympics was a popular topic of conversation with many of my patients. There were two topics that I got asked about on a daily basis:

1.    What is the tape on the volley-ball ladies abs doing?

2.    What is cupping?

Reading various physiotherapy blogs and posts it seemed that this was a very popular discussion between physiotherapist and patient worldwide.

Kinesiology tape (K-tape) has been a bit of a phenomenon since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many elite sportsmen and women have been seen with the brightly coloured tape on various body parts. This has helped its popularity grow.

But what is k-tape? It is a stretchy cotton tape that is designed to stretch up to 140% of its original length. According to the KT tape website “KT TAPE is an elastic sports and fitness tape designed for muscle, ligament and tendon pain relief and support”.

Does it work? Well the jury is out on this one. There is not enough high quality evidence available to conclusively say that k-tape is any better for pain relief than other physiotherapy modalities. There has been some evidence about it improving drainage and circulation under the skin as the tape lifts the skin slightly.

What is my opinion: I think K-tape has its place in the physiotherapy world. I have used it on several large bruises or areas with significant swelling and have seen great improvement with k-tape. I also do think it does provide some pain relief to patients however not all people find this. In the clinic we find it useful for proprioception and find that it is good when pulling tape over bony areas e.g. tibia. I do think it is overused in sports. I am constantly getting asked if my patients can have the bright tape instead of rigid tape. People are attracted to the look of it- “it makes me look like an athlete”.

Since the Olympics there has been one photo in particular that I have been asked about. It is a picture of German beach volleyball player Katrin Holtwick (see below). Now I do not think was necessary – it does not look to me like she has any bruising or swelling around the area, and given that this tape falls over different abdominal muscles I cannot see how it would be facilitating them at all. I think this was a good marketing exercise or was what I call a band-aid strap (one that the athlete wants but it is not necessary).

Now thanks to Michael Phelps and all the lovely circular bruises he appeared with at Rio cupping has now become a popular topic in the clinic.

What is cupping? It is a therapy that stems from Traditional Chinese Medicine where suction is applied using either a slightly heated cup or a cup with a suction mechanism. It is reportedly used on a wide variety of conditions and can be used to treat pain, inflammation, swelling etc.

Does it work? Again jury is out. There is currently no high quality evidence available to support the effectiveness of cupping as a therapy. Michael Phelps certainly finds benefits from it.

What do I think of cupping? I have had cupping done before and found it to be of great pain relief to me personally. I have had several friends who found absolutely no value in it at all. I like cupping as a form of deep tissue massage or a way to increase circulation to a particular area.

So what are my take home messages?

Unfortunately there is not enough high quality research to prove effectiveness for either k-tape or cupping. More research needs to be conducted to prove that it is effective. Both are useful on the right people.

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