Anyone who has watched any sport in the last few years will be aware of Kinesio Tape (KT). It’s the coloured tape that athletes wear to recover from/prevent injury. I really noticed it in the 2012 Olympics, when it seemed that every second athlete had some on, and it is still extremely prevalent.
Manufacturers of the tape claim it can alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, relax muscles, enhance performance, and help with rehabilitation as well as supporting muscles during a sporting event. Furthermore, it can be used for hundreds of common injuries such as lower back pain, knee pain, shin splints, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tennis elbow, just to name a few. And all of this for as little as £8 per roll.
Any product that claims to have such wide-ranging benefits deserves some scrutiny. So what evidence is there for KT effectiveness? Well, surprisingly little. In the last three decades there have been nearly 100 papers published regarding KT. In 2014, Australian scientists reviewed that literature and published their findings in the Journal of Physiotherapy. The paper was entitled: “Current evidence does not support the use of Kinesio Taping in clinical practice: a systematic review”, and the title says it all. They reported that “Kinesio Taping was no better than sham taping/placebo”. Furthermore, in studies that did show an effect of KT, the scientists found that either the effect was tiny and probably not clinically significant, or that the trials were of low quality.
A second review in 2013 concluded that “there currently exists insufficient evidence to support the use of KT over other modalities in clinical practice”. It is pretty clear that KT does nothing that ordinary tape doesn’t do.
So it’s no better than standard taping; but what does standard taping do? Again, the literature is pretty mixed on this. There is some evidence that taping an injured muscle may help it perform better, just like a brace. It is also thought to offer slight pain relief by structurally supporting a joint, however, a brace is more effective. There is also some evidence that it can improve proprioception (the awareness of where a limb is in space without looking), but this is disputed. Ultimately, taping can help with an injured joint or muscle, albeit in a minor way.
So given that using gaffer tape works just as well as KT, why is it that sportspeople spend the extra money on expensive KT? Marketing is the obvious answer. In both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Kinesio Holding Co. donated huge amounts of tape to the US Olympic Committee. American beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh embraced the product and the company saw a 300% rise in sales in the immediate aftermath.
Selling to athletes makes perfect sense really. They are well known to be a superstitious group of people, and those superstitions can help them perform better. Michael Jordan played every single game of his career in the same pair of shorts from the University of North Carolina. Serena Williams never changes her socks during a tournament. In the arena of elite sport, small margins can be the difference between winning and losing, so the placebo effect of a particular ritual can be decisive.
Ultimately, Kinesio Taping is just the latest in a long list of products that sports people have embraced because they thought it gave them the edge (who remembers those white strips that people used to put on their noses to make it easier to breathe?). Ironically, although these products themselves do nothing, the belief that they do may have a minor effect. Unlike other pseudoscience I have written about, this isn’t a particularly harmful one. So if someone wants to spend their hard-earned cash on magic tape, who am I to object?!