I would have been about 13 when Kinesiology Tape started to become mainstream. In the year 2008 at the Beijing Olympic Games, K-Tape received it's first large exposure to the public via mainstream media since it's creation by Dr. Kenzo Kase in 1979. After nearly 30 years, elite athletes could be seen sporting the bright colored tape, and thus the fad of K-Tape was born.
This product is thought to "lift" the epidermis from the underlying tissues therefore increasing blood flow and lymphatic vessel drainage. Further claims of muscle activation or relaxation provoked by specific tape placement, as well as pain reduction via stimulation of sensory receptors on the skin have also been shared throughout the tape's existence. But are these claims really true?
Over my years as a kin student, student AT and a certified Athletic Therapist, this tape has followed me everywhere. There were many years when I despised it. Then I had athletes specifically ask me to put it on them, so I did. Then I took a very in depth taping course during my first semester of AT school, and learned about the magical powers of white zinc tape and tensoplast. At this point, I just really didn't want to use K-Tape. I needed to research. I needed actual evidence.
"Any taping of the skin with whatever [kinesiology] tape or method of application (sham/nonspecific/‘placebo’) produces the [modified pain response] at least from the skin in the somatic nervous system and can evoke neurophysiological effects."
What do the Studies Say?
For this blog, I've taken a look at several articles surrounding the effectiveness of Kinesiology Tape. In one study, 187 participants over the age of 18 with osteoarthritis of the knee were involved in a randomized controlled trial, where half of the group received a specific tape tape job, and the others received a placebo tape. Of all the participants, both groups reported improvement of pain following the 4 week study period, and decreases in anti-inflammatory drug usage. Statistical analysis of the pain ratings given by participants favored the effectiveness of pain reduction due to tape in the group given an actual K-Tape intervention. This being said, it is important to keep in mind that all ratings given in this study were subjective, and all participants were volunteering (potential searching for a means of pain improvement), meaning there is no legitimate way to quantify the actual effectiveness of the tape.
I also took the time to look at a systematic review of 6 studies concerning K-Tape usage. Studies reviewed involved back pain, neck pain, lower extremity pain and shoulder pain. The only grouping that reported significant short-term improvements due to K-Tape usage, were those in the neck group. None of the studies showed long-term improvements and in general, this review stated that there was a lack of evidence proving that K-Tape is effective in relieving pain.
What does the Athletic Therapist Say?
Although there are definitely times when regular athletic tape is far superior, there is a specific time and place where K-Tape can be useful in a therapeutic setting. My general rule is that if we are looking for structural support, white zinc tape, leuko tape, or tensoplast are your best bet. But if we are looking to improve joint awareness and proprioceptive abilities, K-Tape is unmatched. The cool thing about K-Tape, is that it is incredibly elastic. The idea behind K-Tape is that we apply it to the skin in a specific direction, with a specific amount of stretch applied to the tape. As previously stated, the stretch from the tape is thought to create lift between different tissue layers, and it is believed that we can use this type of tape to pull the skin into positions that relieve tension from underlying nerve structures.
The other great thing about the stretch, is that we can apply the tape in a way that provides a touch stimulus to the skin when a joint moves out of a particular posture, triggering the brain to involuntarily correct poor joint positioning. This is by far my favorite way to use K-Tape. Unstable shoulders, poorly tracking knee caps, and unruly shoulder blades can all benefit from the help of this tape when applied properly. But, this tape should be used as an adjunct to rehab, not as a crutch. I have also seen great results in lymph drainage and swelling reduction when K-Tape is applied in a specific pattern over the affected area.
As with most things, there are limitations. I still outwardly cringe when athletes with fresh ankle sprains bring me a roll of K-Tape, because we need to stabilize the ankle to combat ligament stretch and re-establish integrity of the joint so that they can participate. At that point, unfortunately stretchy tape applied in bands just won't meet the criteria for what we need. Any type of tape applied to the body could arguably elicit a placebo effect, so it is hard for me to tell anyone to just throw out their K-Tape. The best thing I can recommend is to do your research (reliable sources only please!) and to check in with your Athletic Therapist if you have any questions about what will be of the greatest benefit to you. K-Tape is not a be all end all, but yes, it does have a purpose in certain circumstances.
Kristen Huber BaKin, CAT(C)
Owner, the Gentle Athletic Therapist
V. Donec, & R. Kubilius, (2019). The effectiveness of Kinesio Taping® for pain management in knee osteoarthritis: a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial. Sage Journals. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1759720X19869135
P.C. Silva Parriera, et al. (2014). Current evidence does not support the use of Kinesio Taping in clinical practice: a systematic review. Journal of Physiotherapy, 60-1, 31-39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jphys.2013.12.008
S. Riches. (June 14, 2017). Taping it and making it: The rise of Kinesiology Tape and the power of placebos in sports. Pacific Standard. Web: https://psmag.com/social-justice/taping-it-and-making-it-the-rise-of-kinesiology-tape-and-the-power-of-placebos-in-sports