While watching the Olympics a few nights ago, an image of beach volleyball player, Kerry Walsh showed a black web of what appeared to be tape on her right shoulder. Later, shots from women’s field hockey, swimming and several other sports showed athletes with similar tapings. David Beckham and Serena Williams have also porting the new tape. What these athletes are using is a new product and form of taping called Kinesio tape. Kinesio tape is designed to give support and stability to the joints and muscles without affecting circulation and range of motion. That seems believable. But is this another gimmick or is Kinesio tape a legitimate therapeutic product?
Kinesio tape is made of a high elastic quality woven tape that allows it to stretch 30-40% from its resting length. It is designed to simulate the elastic properties of skin. The theory is that it lifts the skin away from the muscle fascia, facilitating blood flow and drainage of fluids by the lymph system. This effect is thought to promote healing and prevent injury to the muscle and joint. The advantage of the tape is that is can be worn for long periods of time, for days or even weeks.
According to Kenzo Kase, the creator of Kinesio tape, the tape and taping method (1) corrects muscle function by strengthening weakened muscles, (2) improves circulation of blood and lymph by eliminating tissue fluid or bleeding beneath the skin by moving the muscle, (3) decreases pain through neurological suppression, (4) repositions subluxated joints by relieving abnormal muscle tension, helping to return the function of fascia and muscle and (5) increases proprioception through increased stimulation to skin mechanoreceptors. Unfortunately, the purported effects proposed by Kinesio tape proponents are purely theoretical. No one has provided any scientific evidence that strength, circulation, lymph flow, muscle tension or pain is changed as the result of Kinesio taping.
A search through the scientific research revealed two studies, published in 2008, which suggest that Kinesio Tape does little to alleviate pain or improve muscle strength. In the first study by Dr. Mark Thelen showed slight improvements in pain-free range of motion movements in patients with shoulder injures (rotator cuff). However, the effect was seen immediately after application and no short of long-term effects were found. In the second study by Dr. Tieh-Cheng Fu, the investigators found that application of Kinesio tape to the anterior thigh has no effect on muscle strength either immediately after application or 12 hours later.
These results are in line with earlier studies. These studies show that the effects of Kinesio tape on strength, movement, range of motion and pain are very small and, for the most part, short lived. Thus, from a scientific perspective, Kinesio tape has not been shown to be any more effective than traditional taping or no treatment.
Athletes are very susceptible to the placebo effect. That is if they think a treatment will work, they believe that it actually does. Sometimes performance is improved by the placebo effect, many times it is not and sometimes, the placebo effect can actually mask impaired performance. Since most athletes are aware of the presence of Kinesio Tape, the potential for a placebo effect is great. It is possible that the placebo effect explains many of the effects described by athletes.
That said there are a few words of caution before over interpreting the research into Kinesio tape. Quality scientific research studies using Kinesio tape are few and far between. Most of the published research involves case studies (results from a single subject) or small subject pools. Many of the studies are poorly designed, lack proper controls and may suffer from a placebo effect. So it is very difficult to arrive at a solid, scientific conclusion about its effectiveness.
This is not to say that Kinesio tape is not at all effective. It is simply that at this time, research using Kinesio tape does not support that claims made by its advocates. It is possible that over time, scientific studies might show the sort of effectiveness that is described by some athlete and therapists. But, until then, one must question whether the Kinesio taping used by Olympic athletes actually aids their performance. The bottom line is that at this time, there is very little scientific support for the use of Kinesio Tape. While there are countless anecdotal stories Kinesio tapes effectiveness, research studies do not bear these out. The underlying basis behind Kinesio Tape is for the most part theoretical and has not been proven. Also, the few well designed research trials fail to show any significant effects on pain relief, strength, range of motion or proprioception.
Fu T-C, Wong AMK, Pei Y-C, Wu KP, Chou S-W, Lin Y-C (2008) Effect of Kinesio taping on muscle strengthin athletes – A pilot study. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 11:198-201.
Thelen MD, Dauber JA, Stoneman PD (2008) The clinical efficacy of Kinesio tape for shoulder pain: A randomized double-blinded, clinical trial. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 38:389-395.