K-tape: A Sticky Explanation

More and more patients are coming to me and asking “What is kinesiotape (or k-tape, KT, etc. a.k.a. …”stretchy tape”) and how does it work?” Ahh yes, the brightly coloured tape professional athletes and weekend warriors alike seem to be stuck on (pun intended) these days. It’s a great question. This article will attempt to answer that and shed some light on what, if any evidence exists to support how it works.

First and foremost let’s introduce the tape. Ktape was initially developed in the 1970’s by a chiropractor, Dr. Kenzo Kase. Dr. Kase found that athletic tape (the white stuff) was too restrictive for range of motion. According to Kase, Ktape was designed to mimic human skin and the inherent elastic properties of the epidermal layer. The tape is capable of stretching up to 120-140% of original length and the adhesive used is heat activated. Ktape exploded onto the sport scene after the 2008 Beijing Olympics when the tape was given out for free to athletes from 58 countries. Since then the popularity has grown exponentially! There is no better advertising in sport than having high level athletes wear your product. But what’s the evidence for Ktape? Does it actually have a scientific effect or is it just good marketing leading to the placebo effect? (p.s. The placebo effect is important and valuable for therapy in my opinion but let’s save that for another day).

All in all, I think K-tape may be beneficial for basic slow movements and may have a placebo effect (if you really think it helps) with no scientific evidence to back up effects on faster more athletic movements.

Here is the official claim directly from kinesiotape.ca:
“Kinesio taping alleviates pain and facilitates lymphatic drainage by microscopically lifting the skin. The taped portion forms convolutions in the skin, thus increasing interstitial space. The result is that pressure and irritation are taken off the neural and sensory receptors, alleviating pain. Pressure is gradually taken off the lymphatic system, allowing it to drain more freely”. Sounds like petty amazing stuff to me. When it comes to proof of effectiveness we can rely on experience or science. Relying on experience for most of us would land us in the “alleviating pain” domain, whereas facilitating lymphatic drainage, effecting neural and sensory receptors, etc. would fall into the science domain.

For alleviating pain, new evidence suggests K-tape is more beneficial than no taping at all, fake tape jobs (called sham taping) combined with typical care in those with chronic muscle pain (greater than 4 weeks).1 The systematic review also concluded k-tape was no more effective for relieving pain when compared to other forms of treatment (exercise, etc.).1 When we look at acute pain (less than 2 weeks of pain) the waters become muddy. Most of the recent reviews combined acute and chronic randomized control trials. A lower quality review with 4 out 10 included studies were on acute pain and again k-tape was not better than any other intervention.2 So the jury is out on k-tape and acute pain for now. In the basic scientific domain, the evidence is wishy-washy at best. Most well done studies do not show positive results for any of the claims made by K-tape.

In my opinion, there are limited uses for k-tape. In my clinical experience, if someone has acute neck pain (“I slept on it wrong”) and they are headed off to their desk job or require basic movements like shoulder checking while driving then I believe K-tape tensions the skin enough to give you a reminder than anymore tension on the skin and your neck (of other body part) will be angry at you. The feedback I’ve had from neck pain patients is that the k-tape helps with their neck feeling more “stable”. For chronic pain I can’t remember a time ever using k-tape. More importantly, in athletes and weekend warriors alike, and in my opinion, the speed of movement is usually too fast for k-tape to have any benefit. Take an Olympic beach volleyball player for example; when they jump up with rapid force and swing their arm and shoulder with massive acceleration to smash the ball, I have a hard time believing k-tape will have any chance to signal skin tension to the brain. And since the evidence just isn’t there I stay away from making someone into a believer that k-tape can help that shoulder impingement or other injuries. All in all, I think K-tape may be beneficial for basic slow movements and may have a placebo effect on faster more athletic movements. The placebo effect is a topic for a whole other day. So if you really think that bright pink tape is helping then get it. Beware however as tape can also effect the skin and cause blistering and allergic reactions in some. These events are usually rare so the risk of wearing the tape is low compared to the benefit of a placebo can be helpful. With the placebo effect in mind, if you are experiencing acute or chronic pain, regardless of whether k-tape is effective, contact your health provider or myself at stevepiper@mysportchiro.com


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References
1. Lim, E. C. W., & Tay, M. G. X. (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. British journal of sports medicine, bjsports-2014.

2. Montalvo, A. M., Cara, E. L., & Myer, G. D. (2014). Effect of kinesiology taping on pain in individuals with musculoskeletal injuries: systematic review and meta-analysis. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 42(2), 48-57.