I was watching the Olympics this summer with my grandson, when he asked, “Pops, what does that volleyball player have on his arm?” Pops, who is often wrong but never in doubt, informed him that it probably was some tape or a bandage or a removable tattoo or a sticker protesting terrorism or supporting cancer research. Even at age 9, he knew better!
I figured it was some form of weird tape job. The next day I saw the same thing, but the colors were now more varied—black, neon blue, green. I was informed that this was “Kinesio tape.” OK, kinesiology—that’s the study of motion and muscle function. What does a long 2-inch wide piece of tape on the skin over the quadriceps have to do with motion and muscle function? In my mind, absolutely nothing. But I’ve had to “eat crow” before, so I went “off to see the wizard” to check it out.
You can find a fair amount of information about kinesiology tape on the Internet, but mainly on marketing sites—different materials, different colors, different sizes, all claiming different cures. You can also find courses on techniques of application and different configurations (some types of tape come in precut patterns like the “spider” pattern), but not much on the physiology of how it works.
Does it work like the old Johnson & Johnson tape job or by some other mechanism? In the literature I found a few articles, mostly in physical therapy (PT), manipulation, and chiropractic journals.
My review of the literature unearthed the following:
- In a meta-analysis of 10 articles that fit the inclusion requirements, only two of the articles reported the results of the actual use of the tape to treat patients.
- Little quality evidence supported the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping in the management and prevention of sports injuries.
- Kinesio taping seems to work best in the shoulder, forearm, and quads and as an adjunct and aid in rehabilitation in PT.
- The effect of Kinesio tape in pain relief was trivial and not lasting; a small cohort study found a beneficial effect in improving strength and range of motion, but the effect was minimal and temporary.
- Claims that Kinesio tape supports injured muscles and joints and helps relieve pain by lifting the skin and allowing improved blood and lymph flow are everywhere.
- The tape acts as a stimulant to the skin and muscle under it to improve function.
- The best action probably is that of a placebo.
I interviewed Darrell Gillespie, a physical therapist who uses it. He basically believes that kinesiology tape enables patients to improve their rehabilitation program, motivates them, and adds a placebo effect.
Others may be skeptical but still use it as an adjunct or aid to facilitate and promote patients’ rehabilitation programs. Their attitude is “Why not try it? Even if it only acts as a placebo, maybe the athlete will function better.”
I finally got hold of the “spider” taping manual on how it works and how to apply it. According to the company (SpiderTech), there are four categories of therapeutic effect: psychological, neurocircular, structural, and neurosensory.
The application section included taping of just about all parts of the body with different designs similar to temporary tattoos, but still resembling pieces of sticky cloth. Possibly it could be used as a “fashion statement” or as a sign of support for some cause or the other (Fight Terrorism, Support Cancer Research, Save the Whales). Models were covered with this blue tape from head to toe.
I wondered if it would get rid of my headache or make me smarter (see my photo, above). No luck—I still have the headache and am dumb as ever, but I could use it for a facelift, as a mask to rob a convenience store, or to go to a Halloween party as Spiderman!
Although I am not impressed with objective evidence that kinesiology taping physiologically does anything for the body, I am impressed with its placebo effect (perhaps we could do a research study on the “placebo effect on a placebo”), the fact that psychologically it may give an athlete an edge over his or her opponent. It would be interesting to know how many of our athletes “won” in the Olympics with the tape. And it’s not the worst placebo I have ever seen.
Furthermore, you can’t argue with success: we (the USA) won more gold medals than any other country. Next Olympics we could have a kinesiology tape in red, white, and blue with stars and stripes. Now all we have to do is not let it fall into the hands of the Chinese Olympic team! (For more on the use of Kinesio tape by Olympics athletes, see this issue’s cover story, “Athletes Believe in It—Should You?” by senior science writer Terry Stanton.)
I concluded the following from my search:
- Kinesiology taping has some benefit in 40 percent to 60 percent of users; it probably works best as a placebo.
- It works best in the shoulder, forearm, and quadriceps as an adjunct to PT rehabilitation (Fig. 1).
- More definitive studies need to be done to see if any objective evidence supports its use.
Finally, the same 9-year-old grandson who started this quest sidled up to me 2 weeks later and asked Pops for some “kinesio” for his knees and elbows because he needed a “leg up” on his skate board buddies. So what can you say? Just wish I had stock in the company!