By Phil Page PhD, PT, ATC, CSCS, FACSM
Kinesiology tape has been around for many years in the clinical setting, and has gained popularity recently after its use in high-profile Olympic athletes. While many clinicians and patients offer anecdotal evidence to support its use, kinesiology tape evidence remains controversial. Interestingly, there are over 250 published studies on kinesiology taping…so what’s the problem? Aside from the lack of high quality randomized controlled trials (it’s hard to create a placebo tape!), misinformation on how kinesiology taping works has been perpetuated in many ‘how to’ courses and books…not to mention advertisements!
First of all, we know that kinesiology tape works in reducing pain. In a recent meta-analysis, kinesiology tape was shown to significantly reduce chronic musculoskeletal pain (Lim & Tay, 2015), but the specific mechanism is unknown. The pain reduction is also minimal and short-lasting. Kinesiology tape is thought to reduce pain through the gate-control theory; the sensation of tape on the skin is thought to ‘override’ pain signals in the brain.
However, there is little to no evidence to support its use for other things like acute swelling or performance enhancement…clinicians (and tape manufacturers!) need to be careful in making claims that aren’t substantiated with research.
Unfortunately, kinesiology tape clinical application has been based on theory rather than science, which may be one reason for conflicting results in the literature. Many clinicians have spent time and money taking courses to get certified in how to apply kinesiology tape…but is it necessary? Do we know enough about the true mechanism of action of this ‘magic’ tape to make specific ‘rule’s on its application? Test your knowledge of kinesiology tape application with these 3 true/false questions:
Truth or False?
Applying the tape in a certain direction can change muscle activation.
False. The direction of tape application does not change muscle activation or strength. Two separate studies (Cai et al. 2016; Vercelli et al. 2012) comparing the direction of tape application on muscle and EMG confirmed that the direction of application doesn’t matter. In fact, both studies found no increase in muscle strength in healthy subjects compared to without kinesiology taping.
Specific kinesiology tape tensions produce specific effects.
False. Kinesiology tape tension is probably important for application, but the exact amounts remain unknown. While lower tape tensions are associated with stronger effects (Lim & Tay 2015), specific ranges of tension for specific effects (i.e., 15-35% for “muscle facilitation”) have not been proven. Furthermore, Craighead et al. (2015) found increased skin blood flow under kinesiology tape regardless of the tension applied. Therefore, kinesiology tape tensions are just recommendations, not fact!
Convolutions created by kinesiology tape are needed to lift the skin and improve circulation.
False. There is no published evidence that kinesiology tape actually lifts the skin. In fact, a recent randomized controlled trial found that the convolutions in tape weren’t necessary for successful outcomes in low back pain (Parreira, et al. 2014). Only one study (Craighead et al. 2015) has actually shown increased skin blood flow under kinesiology tape application (which was applied without convolutions!); however, no studies have evaluated blood flow effects below the superficial skin.
Specific patterns of kinesiology tape application are needed for specific diagnoses.
False. There is no evidence comparing specific individual patterns of application in specific diagnoses. Unfortunately, many several studies on the same pathology (such as impingement) often use different patterns between studies. The efficacy of specific application patterns over other patterns for specific diagnoses remains to be proven.
Obviously, there’s a lot of misinformation and bogus claims out there. You don’t have to take a certification course or remember things like which direction or tension you need to apply kinesiology tape for your patients. Based on the research, the direction of application doesn’t matter and small amounts of tension are beneficial. And there is no evidence comparing different patterns of application to prove one is better than the other!
This lack of research doesn’t mean kinesiology tape doesn’t work…it just means that a better understanding of how kinesiology tape works will help develop better interventions, and help us learn which patients and conditions are appropriate for taping. It’s important to note that only half of the research published on kinesiology taping is on actual patients! You need to remember that research on healthy populations may not apply to patient populations.
In summary, kinesiology tape can reduce musculoskeletal pain, although the effect generally lasts less than a week. There is no consistent evidence that specific directions, tensions, or patterns of application affect outcomes. More research is needed on muscle activation, circulatory, and proprioceptive mechanisms and outcomes of kinesiology tape, particularly in patient populations.
Want to learn more about evidence-based kinesiology tape application? Watch my course on Medbridge to hear the evidence and learn a simple method of applying TheraBand Kinesiology Tape based on the best available evidence. Use the promo code THERABANDpage to receive a discount on your annual MedBridge membership!
Cai C et al. 2016. Facilitatory and inhibitory effects of Kinesio tape: Fact or fad? J Sci Med Sport.19(2):109-12.
Craighead et al. 2015. Kinesiology tape increases cutaneous microvascular blood flow independent of tape tension (Abstract). Proceedings of the 17th annual TRAC Meeting. Vancouver, BC. July 29-31, 2015. p. 17
Lim EC, Tay MG 2015. Kinesio taping in musculoskeletal pain and disability that lasts for more than 4 weeks: is it time to peel off the tape and throw it out with the sweat? A systematic review with meta-analysis focused on pain and also methods of tape application. Br J Sports Med 49:1558-1566
Vercelli SS, et al. 2012. Immediate Effects of Kinesiotaping on Quadriceps Muscle Strength: A Single-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Crossover Trial. Clin J Sports Med.22(4):319-326.
Parreira, et al. 2014. Kinesio Taping to generate skin convolutions is not better than sham taping for people with chronic non-speciﬁc low back pain: a randomised trial. J Physiother.60(2):90-96.