Kinesio tape has been touted as a way to relieve pain and improve athletic performance. Today we take a closer look at this product.
About Kinesio Tape
Over three decades ago, Japanese acupuncturist and chiropractor Dr. Kenzo Kase developed Kinesio Tex Tape, a comfortable, pliable, yet durable tape that resembles the adaptability and firmness of human skin. Applying Kinesio Tex Tape is alleged to improve athletic performance through muscle support/relaxation while assisting rehabilitation by relieving pain and decreasing swelling. At first worn by Sumo wrestlers, the tape became increasingly popular among Olympic athletes, most notably at the 2008 Olympics when many rolls were donated to 58 competing countries. Subsequently, online sales of the tape tripled and usage has progressively spread to the general public. Available in multiple colors, a role of kinesio tape can be purchased online or at a sporting goods store for ~$7-$15.
Yet not just anyone is approved to use kinesio tape professionally. Apparently, there is a certain way that the tape must be applied, and training classes are offered to become certified in specific taping procedures.
Scientific Studies on Kinesio Tape
Regardless of the popularity, there is insufficient scientific evidence that kinesio tape (KT) functions as advertised. According to WebMD, analysis of the data from ten scientific studies gleaned the following conclusions:
- There is no evidence that kinesio tape diminishes feelings of pain
- Evidence that kinesio tape increased range-of-motion was uncertain
- 7 of the 10 studies concluded that there may be strength benefits to kinesio taping
- Kinesio tape has a significant effect on muscle, yet it is unclear whether these effects are positive or negative
Head of sports and exercise science at the University of Bedfordshire, Dr. John Brewer made the following statement :
“We need to be very cautious about the extent of the claims… Some perhaps aren’t yet supported by science and I am struggling to see where the science is going to come from. Many of the muscles involved in exercise are deep muscles. Placing strips of tape on the skin is going to have little effect on supporting these muscles within the body. We need osteopaths and physios to do proper, peer-reviewed studies to show it really does work.”
Dr. Brewer also expressed concern that belief in kinesio tape may be harmful if it promotes continued competition or exercise in spite of injury.
A 2015 NY Times post referred to the perceived benefits of Kinesio tape as a “robust placebo effect,” citing a 2015 report in which some participants were told they had the tape on their legs, which in fact it was merely a sticky material. Thirty participants were divided into three groups: some with real Kinesio tape, some with fake Kinesio Tape, and some with no tape. The results reported with the fake Kinesio tape was similar to that as the real thing, with a conclusion that “These findings suggest that previously reported muscle facilitatory effects using KinTape may be attributed to placebo effects.”
Defenders of Kinesio Tape Respond
Undeterred by the scientific evidence, many physiotherapists continue to rely on kinesio tape as a beneficial rehabilitation tool. “Where we used to say, ‘You can’t run until I see you next week,’ we are now applying the tape and keeping people running between sessions,” says physiotherapist Paul Hobrough. Although admitting the tape is not a miraculous cure-all, founder and managing director of Kinesio UK Kevin Anderson criticized the current research and claimed that kinesio taping practices were a decade ahead of science. In an interview with Reuters, he stated, “There’s a lot more needed on the research side to confirm the positive results we’re seeing so far.”
In an interview with NPR, Amy Powell, a director of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and associate professor of sports medicine at the University of Utah, summed up her feelings on kinesio taping: “Anything that [athletes] perceive as an edge, they’ll try, whether it’s scientific or not. And the athletes are convinced that [Kinesio tape] is really helpful… It wouldn’t be the worst placebo in the world; it’s not doing any harm.”
Several comments in the NY Times post cited above point out that proper application is key. “Perhaps people who do not experience relief have not been taught how to properly use the tape and, therefore, are not benefiting from its therapeutic properties,” one reader wrote.
A study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (Yeung SS, et al, May 2015) found that KT delivered a slight advantage in athletic performance, “The results of the present findings suggested that KT shortens the time to reach peak torque generation. Aside from this, there is no other significant positive effect on muscle performance.”
Possible Placebo Effect of Kinesio Tape
Many scientists agree that the apparent benefits of kinesio tape may be mentally subjective. While reiterating the scientific skepticism, physiology professor Dr. Steve Harridge of King’s College London suggested, “The fact that athletes think it’s going to do them some good can help in a psychological way.” Dr. Brewer seems to acknowledge this possibility, “I’m still struggling to come to terms with how tape that is placed on skin can have any real, major effect on performance, other than potentially, a psychological effect.” In a 2011 LA Times article, assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. John Wilson epitomized the seemingly unanimous opinions of the other scientists on kinesio tape: “People often ask me, ‘What does that stuff do?’ I think it’s mainly just window dressing… Until some study comes along to tell me otherwise, I believe any pain relief would come from the placebo effect.”
Research results are mixed in relation to kinesio tape’s effects on strength and muscle, however there is currently insufficient evidence that it relieves pain. Regardless of the results, many physiotherapists and athletes still promote kinesio taping. Several scientists have postulated that any perceived benefits may be due to a psychological placebo effect, possibly due to subconscious changes in behavior because of the tape’s presence on the body.
Updated July 12, 2015
Originally published June 2014