During the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, the American figure skater Mirai Nagasu was seen with what looked to many spectators like a tattoo on the inside of her thigh reading “USA.” A Twitter storm ensued, somewhat overshadowing the fact that she was the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics. What it was, though, was lettering on “kinesiology tape” supplied by the KT Tape company, the official kinesiology tape licensee of Team USA.
Many other competitors at the Winter Olympics used kinesiology tape, too, though their cold-weather apparel hid it from view—unlike at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, where the brightly colored tape was spotted all over, notably on beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings and on her German rival, who donned it in an intriguing squid-like pattern down her abdomen. Players in the NFL and NBA, along with countless other professional athletes, also swear by kinesiology tape. Tom Brady has worn it on his thumb, David Beckham on his ribs.
What proponents claim
Developed by a Japanese chiropractor in the late 1970s, this very thin and pliable tape—sold under such brand names as KT, RockTape, SpiderTech, and FlexU—mimics the texture and elasticity of skin, so it doesn’t restrict movement as other athletic tape does (see inset below). It’s claimed that by gently lifting the skin, the tape improves circulation and lymphatic drainage and reduces inflammation and swelling. It’s also claimed that it can lessen pain by stimulating skin nerve receptors. In addition, the tape is claimed to help hold the joint in the desired position, reduce forces on soft tissue, increase range of motion by inhibiting hypercontracted muscles, help muscles fire more strongly, and provide proprioceptive feedback (the ability to know where your body is in space). All of this is just speculation, however.
Professional and recreational athletes alike are using kinesiology tape to treat or prevent injuries; many also think it improves their performance. The taping is typically done, at least initially, by a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or other practitioner involved in sports or body work. Depending on the part of the body involved, the taping can then sometimes be done by the athlete. The tape can be stretched to varying degrees to adjust the amount of tension applied and can be worn for about three to five days.
Besides numerous anecdotal reports, preliminary research on kinesiology tape has yielded some positive results. For instance, a small study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy in 2013 found that kinesiology tape reduced pain upon stair climbing in young people who had knee pain, compared to no tape, and was as effective as McConnell Taping (see inset). And in a 2017 study from Turkey, kinesiology taping improved pain, pressure pain threshold, and range of motion (but did not reduce disability) in people with cervical myofascial pain syndrome, which causes neck, shoulder, and upper back pain. Other studies have found improvements in people with shoulder impingement syndrome and after surgical reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee.
But overall, based on several study reviews, there is no clear evidence for the effectiveness of kinesiology tape for various musculoskeletal conditions, limited evidence of its potential to reduce pain, and no evidence that it’s better than conventional treatments (such as electrical stimulation, physical therapy, and exercise). One of the more recent reviews, published in Physical Therapy in Sport in 2017, included 15 studies that compared the effects of kinesiology tape to other tapes or no tape. It concluded: “There is a lack of compelling evidence to support the use of [kinesiology tape] to enhance sports performance abilities.”
Part of the problem is that there aren’t enough high-quality studies, and the studies have been inconsistent in methodology, which makes them hard to compare. For instance, studies vary in populations (some have included asymptomatic non-athletes) and conditions treated. They also use different tapes applied in different ways—and in ways that don’t necessarily address individual needs. What’s more, results of studies showing statistically significant improvements in various measures may not always translate into clinically meaningful or long-lasting benefits. For an athlete in a competition, a small, short-term effect may be enough, however.
Another problem is that studies haven’t adequately addressed the possibility that apparent benefits from the tape were due to a placebo effect. That is, the expectation that the tape will help can actually trigger physiological effects (notably pain reduction) in study participants.
Large and well-designed studies are needed to determine if kinesiology tape—sometimes called “magic tape”—is more than just hype or a trendy sports accessory. In the meantime, some people may find it helpful, particularly as an adjunct to conventional treatment for musculoskeletal issues, if only for the psychological effects. If you want to try it, it’s recommended that you seek the help of a physical therapist or other experienced practitioner before doing it yourself. Its benefits, if any, may depend on an accurate diagnosis of the underlying problem, along with proper application of the tape, including placing it in the right places with the optimal tension. It’s not a substitute for physical therapy or rehab exercise. The area should be shaved if there is a lot of body hair there. The tape is contraindicated if you have open wounds, an infection, sensitive skin, or sunburn, or if you have diabetes-related sensory problems.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Do Compression Socks Help Athletes?
Published June 13, 2018