kinesio tape sticks to skin, but seems ineffective for most other things

Introduction:

For highly competitive athletes, the pressure to win is enormous.  Unfortunately, this pressure can make athletes grasp for the winning edge with a desperation that breeds credulity.  One form of this credulous behavior drives athletes to plaster colorful, stretchy cotton tape all over themselves.  This tape is sold under many brand names, but I’ll just refer to it as kinesio tape.

Lately I have been seeing these colorful cotton strips in some of the most unexpected places.  They show up on the forearms and shoulders of rock climbers at my local gym.  I’ve seen the bright turquoise stripes on people’s wrists at the grocery store.  I have even spotted the intricately meandering fluorescent pink lines (Figure 1) wrapping the knees of retired German men in Bavarian beer gardens.

colourful, woven tape on knees and forearms
Figure 1: You have to invest in the intricate, colorful patterns of kinesio tape. That’s how you know it’s working (sorry for the sarcasm). Image source. Licence: CC 4.0.

Because these stripes seem so silly, I initially thought that they must work great.  Otherwise, no one would subject themselves to the elaborate wrapping procedure or constant visual distractions.  But, the perceived ridiculousness of something is no reason to believe that it actually works.  So, I decided to look a little deeper into this phenomenon.

Kinesio tape background:

Kinesio tape was invented by practitioners of acupuncture and chiropractic.  While these fields of practice do make some rather dubious claims, they are not grounds for dismissal on their own.  (Claiming something to be good or bad strictly based on who made the statement/argument is called the genetic fallacy.)  However, what experts in cracking and jabbing people ever needed with colorful tape in the first place is a mystery.  Maybe they cracked or jabbed too hard?

Nowadays kinesio tape providers make some serious, and colorful (get it; see Figure 1), claims touting their products.  After only a cursory perusal of Google it seems that kinesio tape can do it all.  We are told (by entities like RockTape, KT Tape and the Kinesio® Holding Corporation) that it both relaxes and stimulates.  It heals injuries and protects against them.  It lifts the skin that it’s stuck on (which is good).  It even looks great.  Man—how the hell have I made it so far with this shitty, monochromatic, un-elevated, do-nothing skin that I’m in?!

Most of the claimed benefits revolve vaguely around the tapes elasticity.  Traditionally, athletic taping is used for support and compression at weak or injured joints.  But, in contrast, the stretchy kinesio tape is applied anywhere where a problem can be conceived.

Evidence of efficacy:

Unfortunately, very little actual, unbiased research has been done on kinesio tape.  This dearth of assessments persists despite its popularity and the massive profits that its retailers and manufacturers enjoy.  (Drug Store News reported in 2014 that kinesio tape profits for one prominent company had risen over 250% that year.  This generated $5.8 million in sales for just one kinesio tape brand.)

A meta-analysis on sports injuries:

A meta-analysis (a statistical analysis of results from previous studies) was conducted by Williams et al. (2012).  This study sought to compile evidence on the ability of kinesio tape to help with sports injuries.  Following their assessment, they concluded that:

“KT had some substantial effects on muscle activity,…”

Which sounds promising, until you finish the sentence:

“…but it was unclear whether these changes were beneficial or harmful.”

Oh.  Well, that’s not very good.

They wrapped up their findings thusly:

“In conclusion, there was little quality evidence to support the use of KT [kinesio taping] over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries.”

Ouch; not great.

An assessment of butt taping:

But just hold on a second,’ you might be thinking.  ‘Can kinesio tape make my butt more explosive?’  As it turns out, the answer is a resounding maybe.  A study on the effects of kinesio taping of the Gluteus Maximus (butt muscles) of young male athletes found that the tape seems to provide short-term improvements to the subjects’ vertical leaps (Mostert-Wentzel et al., 2012).  However, the perceived benefits existed independently of the arrangement of the butt tape.  Here is a quote from the article:

“However, in this study the Y-strip application (group A) did not produce better results than the I-strip application without tension (group B).”

So, it seems that even in studies that produce positive results, the configuration and elastic properties of the kinesio tape is of little or no consequence.  This definitely contradicts the claims of kinesio tape purveyors.  More importantly, I would argue that this conclusion does not easily comport with plausibility.  This is because we are essentially asked to accept that the simple act of taping our butts, without regard for how they are taped, will make us stronger.

It is also important to note that no control group was used during this study.  In other words, all the butts were taped during a study that set out to see if taping butts improved performance.  In the author’s own words: “These findings need to be confirmed in a study that includes a no-taping group…”

Controlling for the placebo effect:

Our dirty ape brains are powerful lumps of wetware.  Unfortunately, this means that we are very capable of deceiving ourselves.  One way in which we commonly deceive ourselves is by believing that a treatment is actually doing something.  When this belief leads to actual, real-world benefits, it’s called the placebo effect.  Conversely, when our beliefs or expectations cause us problems it is called the nocebo effect.

Benefits are, of course, good—by definition.  However, it’s important to differentiate between benefits that are generated by our own beliefs and benefits from actual treatments.  Knowing the difference may save us from wasting money or time, either personally or through continued and unnecessary research.

In short, this means that if you think stretchy, florescent tape will help you, your performance will probably improve.  Just because of your own attitude.

Because our filthy monkey minds are so crafty, it is difficult to control for the placebo effect.  However, many brilliant scientists manage to do so.  One such study by Poon et al. (2014) controlled for the beliefs of their subjects by blindfolding them and telling them that the kinesio tape was actually “muscle sensors.”  After this placebo variable was accounted for and the subjects didn’t know that they were kinesio-tapped, the authors were able to conclude that:

“These findings suggest that previously reported muscle facilitatory effects using KinTape [kinesio tape] may be attributed to placebo effects.”

Conclusion:

It is likely that, in some applications, kinesio tape provides similar benefits to other bandages (like Ace bandages).  However, it is highly doubtful that kinesio tape can provide any special benefits outside of ordinary support and/or the placebo effect.

Given the lack of evidence, the claims touted by kinesio tape manufacturers, distributers and practitioners seem highly dubious.  Indeed, some of these claims have been investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority of the UK.  In all four of the investigated issues (misleading descriptions, efficacy claims, proclaimed treatment applications, and descriptions of lymphatic benefits) the complaints against kinesio taping claims were upheld.

So, unless you just want to look more colorful while still exposing as much skin as possible, kinesio tape is probably not your best option.  That is, of course you are just trying to treat a small nocebo-boo (Figure 2).

a florecent bandage that reads for treatment of nocebo-boos
Figure 2: A florescent bandage with theoretical kinesio power. It is the best physical remedy for nocebo-effect induced nocebo-boos.  This original Scienceosaurus graphic will soon be available on t-shirts.

References

Mostert-Wentzel, K. (2012). Effect of kinesio taping on explosive muscle power of gluteus maximus of male athletes. South African Journal of Sports medicine, 24(3), 75-80.  http://journals.assaf.org.za/sajsm/article/view/764/591

Poon, K. Y., Li, S. M., Roper, M. G., Wong, M. K. M., Wong, O., & Cheung, R. T. H. (2015). Kinesiology tape does not facilitate muscle performance: A deceptive controlled trial. Manual therapy, 20(1), 130-133.  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1356689X14001416

Williams, S., Whatman, C., Hume, P. A., & Sheerin, K. (2012). Kinesio taping in treatment and prevention of sports injuries. Sports medicine, 42(2), 153-164.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22124445

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.