The human body is a remarkable piece of engineering. One great illustration of this point is the ankle joint. The ankle boasts excellent range of movement in multiple directions AND has the amazing capacity to withstand up to 13 times the body’s weight during high intensity movements (1). These characteristics make the ankle an extremely important joint for human functioning, and are crucial for walking, running and maintaining balance. But with large degrees of movement and great demands upon it, it is little wonder the ankle joint is highly susceptible to injury. The management of injuries to this unique joint comes in many forms, but mainstays in the wider health industry include taping, bracing and casting (2). This article will delve into the use of one of the more recently popularised methods of managing the ankle: ankle KT tape. We’ll discuss what ankle KT tape is, its role and some benefits, but also question whether the approach behind the use of KT tape for ankle sprains or KT tape for ankle support is really the best approach to take.
WHAT IS KT TAPE?
KT Tape (or kinesiology tape, K-tape) is an elastic, cotton tape that is designed to stretch along its length while remaining rigid across its width. It mimics the elasticity of the skin, enabling it to be used for therapeutic or rehabilitative purposes without restricting movement in ALL directions. The tape can be applied in a number of different ways and the tension adjusted accordingly to facilitate the desired effect. KT tape was developed in the late 1970s but rose to popularity around 2012. As such, research into its efficacy is fairly limited with literature surrounding KT tape for the ankle or KT for ankle sprains or KT tape for ankle support specifically being even more rare.
PROPOSED BENEFITS AND SHORTCOMINGS OF ANKLE KT TAPE
Broadly speaking, it is proposed that ankle KT tape can be used for any combination of the following (2):
- To reduce ankle pain by decreasing nociception (i.e. pain-signaling)
- To provide support to muscles and joints around the ankle
- To facilitate movements of muscles and joints of the ankle
- To enhance ankle proprioceptive feedback (i.e. awareness of your body’s position in space)
- To reduce ankle swelling/improve circulation
One of the greater benefits of KT ankle tape is its potential to assist with ankle pain, though its efficacy appears to vary greatly depending on the severity and type of condition. It is purported to work via the ‘gate-control theory’ or ‘pain-gate theory’ of pain. The idea behind ‘pain-gating’ is to introduce a stimulus that inhibits the brain’s capacity to perceive a nociceptive (i.e. pain) stimulus. KT ankle tape acts as a mechanical pressure on the skin that provides a sensation for the brain to process. As the brain prioritises the mechanical input from the tape over the pain input, the experience of pain is reduced to some extent. Think of this as closing the gate, so pain sensations can’t flow through the nerve and up to the brain as readily (3).
The combination of support and improved proprioceptive feedback provided by the tape can help to alleviate some strain on the soft tissues and aid in facilitating muscle activation, which may also result in a reduction in pain overall. It is important to note that while all these benefits are proposed, the jury is still out on how effective they really are since studies provide conflicting and varied results.
While KT tape may deliver all of the above benefits without restricting movements to the same degree as a brace, its shortcomings come down to its limited contextual applicability. For instance, the tape has minimal elasticity meaning it can provide only very little support to a joint, likely rendering its use as appropriate only in situations where minimal support is required, such as very late stage ankle sprains or in minor hypermobility cases.
IS KT ANKLE TAPE REALLY THE BEST APPROACH FOR MANAGING ANKLE PAIN, SPRAINS, AND INSTABILITY?
So it seems that KT tape has some utility in facilitating pain relief and instability. A more important question to ponder should be: “Why are there symptoms such as pain and instability arising in the first place?” Perhaps we should take a step back and try to understand why the body may not be capable of creating and maintaining good ankle positions in the first place, or what even a good ankle position is. The approach of simply alleviating symptoms, which is often utilised when thinking about KT ankle tape, involves looking at body parts in isolation rather than considering the body as a cohesive, integrated structure. Think of treating an ankle sprain with KT ankle tape as being like trying to extinguish a forest fire with only a bucket of water. So despite KT ankle tape being capable of the aforementioned benefits, it may not be the best course of overall action. Instead, we need to consider the body as a whole system, allowing us to better understand the drivers behind our issues (i.e. the root causes).
At Functional Patterns, our primary focus is on tackling the fundamental aspects of human motion first and foremost. These are the essential functions crucial to humans as a biological entity. As per prominent studies, these functions include running, walking, standing, and throwing, commonly referred to as the "First Four" movements in FP terminology (4).
Through the process of learning, recognising, and rectifying dysfunctions present in these movements, it is possible to develop a body that is equipped to manage a wide array of scenarios - including, but certainly not limited to ankle-related movements.
Let’s delve a little deeper into this idea with an illustrative scenario: Imagine someone has experienced multiple ankle sprains. More than likely, there is a biomechanical explanation as to why they’re susceptible to such an injury. Upon closer observation of their running, standing, walking, and throwing movements, it quickly becomes evident that they exhibit a “bow-leg” dysfunction throughout each of these fundamental movements. A “bow-leg” dysfunction is characterised by the legs curving outwards at the knees, resembling the shape of a bow (refer to the image below). Typically, this condition results from repeated poor muscle loading patterns to the legs over time. In such a case, there is a sub–optimal distribution of weight and force along the lower-limb, resulting in an ankle that is more prone to rolling out, causing sprains and instability (as depicted in the picture below).
Naturally, addressing the issue at hand goes beyond solely focusing on the ankle. Instead, a more holistic perspective is required, one that encompasses the whole leg and extends to the entirety of the body. This broader view is essential to truly grasp the nature of the ankle problem. It involves understanding how the ankle interacts with the foot, the knee, the hip, the rib cage, the arms and more. Through this lens, it becomes evident that the ankle problem experienced by this person is merely a symptom of a more extensive pattern of dysfunctional movement. Thankfully, looking at the body in this way also provides many clues as to how to resolve the problem.
Continuing with the example, counteracting the forces that created a “bow-legged” condition in the first place is essential to reduce the ankle’s propensity to roll out, the precursor movement to their ankle sprain. Achieving this goal requires the person to learn how to utilise their body in a way that works to fight their current dysfunction. The most logical approach to this involves addressing this dysfunctional movement pattern through the movements that carry the most significance – the FP ‘Big Four’: walking, running, standing, and throwing. In getting the whole body the create a force to counter a dysfunctiona; movement pattern, the ankle becomes less and less likely to roll out, significantly reducing the likelihood of an ankle sprain as time goes on. This is what Functional Patterns is all about – addressing the body as a system, not based on symptoms.
Interestingly, this approach not only makes sense to enhance ankle functionality, but also holds the potential to improve the entire movement spectrum across the entirety of the body. It appears that enhancements in any of the FP ‘Big Four’ movements can positively influence nearly any other motion you can envision, given that these movements are the foundation of human physicality. By tackling the entire system, rather than treating the symptoms, the Functional Patterns method can take effect. This way of thinking captures the notion that a holistic view yields more comprehensive and lasting results compared to isolated treatment methods like KT tape.
KT ankle tape is a commonly used intervention when it comes to addressing ankle pain and instability. While KT ankle tape has benefits, it appears that its use is almost always a superficial solution to a deeper, underlying issue. It is quite common for ankle injuries to occur whilst participating in non contact sports or without any external force to justify the outcome. This leads us to question the source of the biomechanical malfunction that led to the injury. To highlight the compounding nature of ankle injuries, it has been reported that up to 73% of those who suffer an ankle sprain will experience chronic ankle instability with recurrent sprains (2). All of this to say that even something as seemingly benign as an ankle sprain can snowball into recurrent injuries and much bigger problems if the root cause is not addressed.
This leads to the essence of Functional Patterns; taking into account every part of your body and how they relate to each other, identifying dysfunctions and retraining movement patterns in reference to how the human body evolved to move. It encompasses relearning not only how you should move but the best ways to support your human biology in order to optimise your health - for instance, setting your circadian rhythm using your light environment, ensuring high quality water intake and nourishing yourself with quality nutrition and fewer toxins. Of course this a broad topic, but a great place to start is with the Functional Patterns 10-Week Online Course (found here: The 10-Week Online Program | Functional Patterns). This guides you through the basics and provides a good foundation for further learning and self-improvement. If you’re dealing with complex issues, it is safest and most efficient to engage with a Functional Patterns Practitioner. You can use the practitioner map to find your nearest practitioner (found here: Find a Practitioner | Functional Patterns Worldwide). Is it time to take control of your ankle issues and get started with Functional Patterns?
- Brockett CL, Chapman GJ. Biomechanics of the ankle. Orthop Trauma. 2016 Jun;30(3):232-238
- Kim, JH., Cho, MR., Park, JH. et al. The effects of Kinesiotape on acute lateral ankle sprain: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. Trials 19, 125 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13063-018-2527-5
- Kugelmann, R. (1997). The psychology and management of pain: gate control as theory and symbol. Theory & Psychology, 7(1), 43-65.