Kinesiology Tape: Therapeutic Value or Sham?

Bandaging and taping techniques are routinely used by coaches, athletic trainers and athletes to accomplish a variety of objectives such as providing compression to minimize swelling in the initial management of injury, reducing the chance of injury occurrence by applying tape prophylactically (for prevention) and to provide support to an already injured structure. These practices are typically only a temporary solution in the management of an injury. Consider an athlete experiencing patellar tendinitis, commonly referred to as jumper’s knee. While a tenodesis strap or brace for patellar tendinitis may provide support and cushioning, the knee will not improve in function without rest, anti-inflammatory remedies and rehabilitation. However a middle ground has potentially been developed.

If you watched the Olympics in Beijing last summer you may have noticed that many of the world’s top athletes sported colorful taping configurations on assorted muscles and joints. Kinesiology tape was developed in efforts to assist in the healing of traumatized tissue by Dr. Kenzo Kase in Japan over 30 years ago. While it is best known for its applications as an athletic tape or sports tape, it is widely used by medical professionals as a therapeutic tape for numerous medical conditions. Among these is the reduction of swelling with conditions associated with lymphodema, recovery from surgery, and to support the structural integrity for infants with hypotonia and additional neurological and muscular disorders. While traditional athletic tapes are generally applied over gauze to form a stiff, inflexible bandage with the goal of supporting and immobilizing a joint, kinesiology tape is extremely strong and flexible therefore supporting an injured area without restricting its normal range of motion. In addition to its unique elastic properties as a sports tape, kinesiology tape also has potential value in its therapeutic capabilities.

When a muscle or joint is overused or injured the surrounding area becomes inflamed or swollen. A cascade of biochemical events propagates the inflammatory response involving the local vascular system, the immune system and the cells within the injured tissue. The swelling that is coupled with an injury is caused by the influx of plasma fluid, containing proteins such as fibrins and immunoglobulin’s that migrate to the injured area to promote healing. The excess fluid is typically removed by local lymphatic vessels however, if the inflammation is great enough, the lymphatic vessels are compressed and unable to remove the excess fluid. This can lead to an ongoing cycle of inflammation and pain, which will limit performance and interrupt the healing of the injured tissue. While traditional athletic tapes will compress or immobilize the injured area, kinesiology tape is applied over the injured area, lifting the skin, which creates a space between the skin and the inflamed tissues below. This space that is created reduces pressure on the blood and lymphatic vessels while increasing the circulation of both fluids. Improved blood flow enhances the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the injured tissues, which accelerates the healing process while improved lymphatic flow reduces swelling which relieves pressure on pain receptors proving immediate pain relief.

Current research is limited on the specific merits of kinesiology tape and whether or not it is effective. Thelen et al. 2008 investigated the short-term clinical efficacy of kinesiology tape (KT) when applied to college students with shoulder pain as compared to a sham tape application. Forty-two subjects clinically diagnosed with rotator cuff tendonitis/impingement were randomly assigned to 1 of 2 groups: therapeutic KT group or sham KT group. Subjects wore the tape for 2 consecutive 3-day intervals in which self-reported pain and disability and pain-free active ranges of motion (ROM) were measured at multiple intervals to assess for differences between groups. The researchers found that the therapeutic KT group showed immediate improvement in pain-free shoulder abduction after tape application. No other differences regarding ROM, pain or disability scores at any time interval were found. The researchers concluded that KT tape may be of some assistance to clinicians in improving pain-free active ROM immediately after tape application with shoulder pain however the utilization of KT for decreasing pain intensity or disability has not been supported. Another study from San Jose State University found that in thirty healthy individuals, the use of KT along the lower trunk area appeared to increase the range of vertebral trunk flexion.

In closing, kinesiology tape has been found to improve active pain-free range of motion in muscles and joints although its therapeutic value has not been validated. Despite its effectiveness as a short-term application in injury management has not yet been proven, kinesiology tape continues to be used and endorsed by the medical community and athletes worldwide.

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