If you see professional athletes or weekend warriors with a crazy crosshatch of tape on their shoulders, knees or elbows, they probably aren't making a fashion statement. Chances are they're trying to tape over some pain.
So-called kinesiology tapes — two prominent examples are Kinesio Tex Tape and KT Tape — gained worldwide attention during the 2008 Olympics, largely thanks to the heavily taped shoulder of American beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh.
Unlike traditional tapes that wrap around joints to provide support and compression, kinesiology tape sticks directly to the sore spots like big Band-Aids. Both Kinesio Tex Tape and KT Tape are made of breathable, waterproof, elastic cotton that supposedly mimics the strength and flexibility of human skin.
Invented in Japan 30 years ago, kinesiology tapes have moved beyond the realm of elite athletics and are now used by average people with average pain in the back, knees, shoulders and elsewhere. The tapes are dispensed by physical therapists, athletic trainers and chiropractors; many of these professionals have attended courses to become certified in the taping method. The general public can also purchase the tape directly and take a stab at applying it themselves.
KT Tape is sold at many sporting good stores and online outlets. You can expect to pay a little more than $10 for a single 16-foot roll cut into 20 separate strips. Kinesio Tex tape is only available online. Shopping at the company site, you can buy a roll that's a little more than 16 feet long for about $15. Both brands come in a wide variety of colors, including black, beige and neon pink.
The Kinesio Tex Tape website says that the tape "treats a variety of orthopedic, neuromuscular and orthopedic conditions," adding that the tape "microscopically" lifts the skin to enhance blood flow, ease inflammation and improve "lymphatic drainage." Mike McDuffie, a marketing coordinator for Kinesio USA, says that the tape "provides support without limiting range of motion." McDuffie says the tape can relieve pain caused by herniated discs, elbow tendinitis, arthritis of the knee and many other problems.
The website for KT Tape says it's a "revolutionary sports medicine solution for treating and preventing common sports injuries such as ... shin splints, plantar fasciitis, knee pain, and more." Like Kinesio Tape, KT Tape is said to improve blood flow and enhance lymph drainage while providing gentle support to joints and muscles. Jim Jenson, vice president of marketing, says that the tape relieves pain by "allowing the body to naturally heal itself."
The bottom line
For products that have become so popular on and off the playing field, there's surprisingly little evidence that kinesiology tapes actually relieve pain, says Dr. John Wilson, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who specializes in both sports medicine and arthritis treatment. "People often ask me, 'What does that stuff do?' I think it's mainly just window dressing."
According to Wilson, it's unrealistic to think that a strap of tape on the skin could have any effect on blood flow or lymph drainage. It's quite possible, he says, that some people feel relief simply because they expect the tape to work. In other words, kinesiology tapes could just be stretchy, colorful placebos. "Until some study comes along to tell me otherwise, I believe any pain relief would come from the placebo effect," he says.
There have been a few small studies of kinesiology tapes over the years, but even Jenson of KT Tape says the scientific evidence is "weak."
In one of the only studies conducted in this country, researchers with the Army compared carefully applied Kinesio Tex Tape to a "sham" treatment on 42 people with shoulder pain. The sham treatment involved two strips of tape put in a place that, according to the theory behind taping, shouldn't have had any effect. The subjects getting the "real" treatment did report some immediate pain relief, and both groups improved after six days of taping. The researchers, concluded, however, that there was no long-term difference between the real treatment and the fake treatment.
Jennifer Gamboa, a spokeswoman for the American Physical Therapy Assn. who runs a private physical therapy practice in Arlington, Va., says that she sometimes uses kinesiology tapes on clients, including dancers with sore ankles or members of the general public with lower-back pain. She's not convinced that the tape really does anything to protect the joint, improve blood flow or speed healing, but she does think that it helps people become more aware of their bodies and reminds them to avoid certain movements.
Kinesiology tapes do seem to provide some comfort, she says. "Pain is an emotional thing," she says. "If [the tape] changes their perception, then it's going to change their pain."
Curious about a consumer health product? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more at latimes.com/skeptic.