Kinesio Tape: Pain Abatement or Fashion Statement?

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If you’ve been watching the Olympics in London recently, you have probably noticed several athletes with colorful tape adorning different parts of their bodies in varying patterns.  The German beach volleyball team has been the most visible example, with Katrin Holtwick wearing the tape over her entire abdomen and her teammate Ilka Semmler wearing it on her buttock and sometimes down her entire left leg.  You may have seen in on the backs of several Olympic divers or the legs and thighs of sprinters or hurdlers.  American beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh-Jennings wore this in 2008 on her shoulder after a rotator cuff injury and occasionally continues to do so.

So what is this tape and what exactly does it do?  Is it just an athletic fashion accessory?  This product is called Kinesio tape and it was developed in Japan about 30 years ago.  It is an elastic tape with a strong adhesive that is applied in specific ways to muscles or joints.  To be applied properly, users must be trained in specific application techniques.  It can be applied one way to help activate an underused muscle, or another way to relax an overused muscle.  It can also be applied across joints to limit or encourage range of motion.

Does Kinesio tape work?  It is not an extensively studied topic, but there have been some studies in recent years that examined its effectiveness.  In these studies, there is little scientific data that shows any statistically significant improvements in muscle or joint function.  Many athletes that use it seem to report pain relief, especially immediately after application.  Some say this is simply a placebo effect and nothing more.

I took an informal poll on twitter and asked some professionals (orthopaedic surgeons, physical therapists, athletic trainers, personal trainers, and coaches) their thought on Kinesio tape.  The responses ranged very widely.   Several therapists and trainers that use it often in their treatments believed strongly in its effectiveness.  Some orthopaedists compared it to a topical analgesic, and others dismissed it as useless.  One athletic trainer commented that the best use he had found for the tape was to secure some lose wires in his car.  [Follow me on twitter @samcartermd]

The theory of the taping makes intuitive sense to me, but I question whether something applied on the skin can significantly affect the muscles underneath.  However, I am in the group of those that would argue that a positive placebo effect is better than no effect at all.  I certainly don’t see any significant negative effects or risks with its use.  Plus, it looks pretty cool.

Questions about Kinesio tape?  Do you have personal experience with it?  Leave a question or comment!