How Does Kinesiotape Work?

Why do athletes wear medical tape on various parts of their body during competition? During the 2012 Olympic games, numerous athletes are sporting interesting formations of “kinesiotape” on their shoulders, knees, and backs. David Beckham and Serena Williams are also fans of the tape. Perhaps this is just because David and Serena are fashionable types – they are bored with tattoos and looking for the latest in alternative body adornment. But wait, Lance Armstrong is also a fan of taping, and he’s a no nonsense Texan all American hero type. Surely he wouldn’t wear it just for its fashionable appearance. Here’s what Lance wrote about the magical effects of the “Tape” in his book:

“Something better than any laser, wrap, or electric massager…The Tape. It is a special hot-pink athletic tape that came from Japan and seemed to have special powers. Every morning before the stage, they would tape us all up, different parts of our bodies . . . Sometimes we’d be so wrapped up in hot-pink tape that we’d look like dolls, a bunch of broken dolls. But the next day the pain disappeared–it was gone.”

C’mon Lance! He makes it sound like the tape wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t hot pink! But can we trust Lance on whether the tape works, even though we can’t trust his fashion sense? Probably not. Pro athletes have a habit of buying into nonsense, so we shouldn’t place too much stock in their endorsements. However, there are many trainers that swear by the tape, and claim their athletes feel better as soon as its on.

So does the tape help athletes and if so how? And does it need to be pink? As discussed below, there are a few studies showing some minor short term improvements in movement and pain levels as a result of wearing the tape. And the likely mechanism for the efficacy of the tape illustrates one of the main themes of this blog – that the best explanation for why a therapy works is usually its effects on the nervous system. Here’s the deal.

The brain and the skin

Before getting into the studies, first a bit of background on the skin and its close relationship with the brain. The skin and the brain go way back, all the way to the embryo, as they are both part of the ectoderm. Skin is where we interact with the environment, so it is tasked with the job of detecting even the most minor and subtle changes in pressure and movement. Thus, the skin has a large variety and number of mechanoreceptors, and the brain has a large area devoted to processing the significant sensory information that comes from them. In short, the skin is a sensitive organ that does a lot of talking, and the brain is very interested in what it has it say. For these and other reasons, the skin is sometimes referred to as “the outside of the brain.” What a disgusting image.

One mechanoreceptor in the skin that is particularly relevant to this discussion is the Ruffini corpuscle. Ruffinis fire continuously when the skin is placed under lateral stretch, which is exactly what a proper tape job seeks to do. So, taping will cause ruffinis to send continuous information to the brain the whole time the tape is there. Are there any conceivable benefits to this flood of mechanoreception? Here are two: sensory gating and “movement illusion.”

Sensory gating

Sensory gating is the process by which the brain’s response to a stimulus become blunted by a competing stimulus. One example of sensory gating is when mechanoreceptive information distracts the brain from processing pain signaling, called nociception. This is why we instinctively rub an area that gets injured – to create non-threatening sensory signals to compete with the threatening harm signals for the brain’s attention. This process works in reverse as well – if you feel pain in a joint you will probably be less coordinated there because the brain will be too distracted by the pain to fully process the sensory feedback necessary for coordinated movement.

So, tape that stretches the skin over a painful joint will send a flood of mechanoreceptive information to the brain, which distract the brain from focusing on the nociceptive signaling, which might reduce pain a little and maybe improve coordination.

Movement illusion

The other possibility is that the novelty of having the skin stretched continuously can fool the brain into thinking that the joints adjacent to the stretched skin have moved (which is the usual reason that skin stretches). In some previous posts I have discussed sensory motor illusions and their capacity to change the body maps and modulate pain. In the context of skin stretch, there is a study showing that stretching of the skin around the fingers created an illusion that the fingers are moving.

Thus, taping near a joint could fool the brain into thinking the joint has moved. And, more importantly, that the joint has moved without pain. Imagine that your shoulder hurts when it goes overhead. Then we place tape on the shoulder to stretch the skin in the same way it would be stretched when the shoulder is overhead. Perhaps the brain will interpret the sensory information from the skin stretch as meaning that the shoulder is now capable of painfree flexion. This reduces threat, which reduces pain.

So there’s two potential ways that tape might help an athlete. Now what do the studies say?

The studies

One study of patients with shoulder pain found that the tape improved range of motion but not pain. The control group was given “sham taping” and had no improvements at all. In another study on patients with whiplash, taping yielded pain relief and improvements in range of motion compared to the sham taping group. The effects were instant and continued for a day. In another study, taping was found to be just as effective as cervical thrust manipulation in the management of neck pain.

The most interesting study came out recently. It was known before the study that tape around the ankle could improve postural control, and it was also known that muscular fatigue tends to degrade postural control. So the study was set up to test whether tape could prevent postural degradation resulting from fatigue.

Researchers assessed subjects’ posture with and without tape around the ankle, and before and after fatiguing the muscles around the ankle. The tape had no effect on posture when the muscles were not fatigued, but significantly improved postural control when there was fatigue. The researchers concuded that fatigue impairs posture by interrupting the normal flow of sensory information from the mechanoreceptors in the fatigued area. The tape adds enough new sensory information to correct for this deficit and restore postural control.

Conclusion

Based on the above, taping a sore joint is an interesting idea that might help and certainly won’t hurt. No one seems to agree on the exact way to tape, so you have a good chance for a result just experimenting with what works. By the way, not just any tape will work very well, you need tape specially designed for the job, such as kinesiotape.

I should mention that Diane Jacobs is a great source of information and insight on the effects of skin stretching. She is a physical therapist who makes skin stretching her main mode of treatment, and she and her many disciples claim excellent results in pain relief and function from this technique, which she calls “dermoneuromodulation.” She has a manual describing the details of her technique, including her theory (which I didn’t discuss here) that skin stretches can unkink cutaneous nerves that may be the source of the pain. Diane has a blog and discusses skin extensively at the somasimple forums. So you can get the “skinny” from Diane. Ouch!

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45 Responses to How Does Kinesiotape Work?

  1. John Doyle says:

    Nice job, Todd – I’ve experimented a bit with kinesiotaping and intedn to do more…

    • Thanks John,

      Any good results? I’ve screwed around with it a bit – nothing earth shattering but no harm done for sure. Except some leg hair pulled out …

  2. Esther de Ru says:

    Hi Todd, clear story.
    I too think that its the skin that gives the imput and makes “kinesio” tape work. There are more than 60 brands available worldwide these days. (Kumbrink B, K-taping Heidelberg:Springer Medizin Verlag 2009). I use CureTape myself (Dutch brand). Have been experimenting with taping the cutaneous nerve endings (Diana’s ideas)and the dermatomes and organ zones(from the original German bindegewebsmassage).
    Am specialized in using tape on children and am very aware of the fact that a child’s skin develops over time and is not the same as that of an adult. Have developed the paediatric taping course and invite anyone who uses this tape and is interested in taping in paediatrics to go our closed pediatric taping group at linkedin. Especially when taping young children I think you really need to be very aware of what you are doing. The general “rules” when taping children are; 1.Always use a test patch first.
    2.Inform older children/parents about the tape properties and how to use it.
    3.Use as little tape as possible.
    4.Colours have influence, use skin colour if possible.(Research has shown that in various brands, each brand and each colour has a different mechanical effect.M. Fernández-Rodrígues et al (2010) Vendaje neuromuscular: ¿tienen todas las vendas las mismas propiedades mecánicas? Apunts Med.)
    Therefor use one tape brand and one tape colour when doing research.
    Do not use red(pink) on young children, we have seen it “aggrevate” the child.
    5.Know the contents of the glue!(permeability young child’s skin)
    6.I strongly recommend not using this tape on very young babies.
    and yes, remove hair before taping, in children as well.

    Look forward to your comments :)

    Esther

    • Esther,

      Thanks for the info, that’s very helpful. Color does matter! I was joking about it in my post but I can definitely see why it would matter. Might help with the movement illusion aspect.

  3. Tena Parker says:

    I am going on over 3 years of pain from a car hitting me from behind when I was at a red light. I have had many procedures done including a rib removal, scalene in my neck removed, 4 epidurals,
    many shots in my neck, and many more Physical Therapy, and other procedures. The tape was used on me to help my muscles remember where to be, IE: shoulders were rolled forward, also in training my neck position to be corrected. My kids and I call it magic tape, because it is in my home like any one would have bandaids in their home. It is useful for minor to major injuries. I utube on how to tape if I question the proper taping. I use it on my knee also which has had 4 surgeries ( 2 knee replacements)
    I am active. It is hard to keep me down and a hair stylst in the film industry. Returning to work and working as I healed Kanesiotape has help me continue my work and life as I healed.
    I will alway have it in my medicine cabinet. I hope this post will help others, and investigate it your self. A physical therapist is a great place to start to help you understand how to tape and or have them tape you. Great health and healing to all! T.

  4. Edward Yu says:

    This was great, Todd. I’m fascinated by the theories on how the nervous system / mind may be responding. Thanks for posting!

  5. This is wonderfully written Todd. If we’d been attentive to the ectodermal perspective and the instinctive behavior in response to pain, this tape would have shown up long ago. I’m glad it’s here and the theroy behind its effect can be so well defended.

  6. Thanks Barrett. And see you tomorrow!

  7. Anka says:

    I did the Kinesio Taping training about two years ago. It works absolutely brilliantly! The only problem I have,is that with being a Massage Therapist, oil prevents the tape from sticking. So whenever I do recommend Kinesio Taping, I have to ask my clients to come in on another day, as even removing the oil is not very efficient.
    On clean dry skin though – MAGIC!

  8. Kory Zimney says:

    Nicely done Todd. I think explaining how the tape affects the nervous system is important in our explaination to patients. Just like magic, it is not “really” magic (no mysterical powers delivered by someone who has mysterical powers), just an illusion that helps correct our nervous system. It is delivered by a therapist that understands the nervous system and that has care and compassion toward the patient.

  9. Hi Todd,

    Great to meet you this weekend. Having a Feldenkrais person there truly helped.

  10. You’re welcome. Did you think an answer to your question here was provided?

  11. The question that began this discussion.

  12. The title of the essay.

  13. Hi Todd and everyone,

    When I started to use kinesio-taping eight years ago with my half-proessional soccer players they didn’t like it. They didn’t like the colours and even if I tried to explain the mechanisms they felt ashamed to wear it …
    They started to accept it only when they saw it on professional athletes during world swimming championnships and on high-level palyer soccers too …

  14. I have just been on a course and was given a roll of kinesiotape included within the price of the course. I found the concept of this treatment modality extremely interesting.

    I am currently working as a physiotherapist within the NHS. I have used this to treat plantar fascittis, which gave immediate reief to my patient. I do think although the result can be significant and immediate it is important to remember there is a reason for the initial insult and not to forget that it is effective in conjuction with rehab.

    I have also used it for shoulder impingement, which allowed my patient gain full pain free movement immediatly. However she remained vulnerable within an impigement posistion. Shoulder impingements, normally are quite difficult to treat and complex, however my patient was pain free and fully functional within 2 treatment session. Cant argue cost effectiveness to that.

  15. […] here is an interesting article from Todd Hargrove on how taping can help with pain and/or injuries. Theory behind it is similar to […]

  16. […] Hur fungerar kinesiotejp? Todd Hargrove lägger fram olika teorier och förklaringsmodeller till varför kinesiotejp kan fungera eller inte fungera. Han tar bland annat upp hur tejpen påverkar huden och hur portteorins inverkan. Dessutom sammanfattar han hur kunskapsläget ser ut i dagsläget. […]

  17. […] til at smertene forsvinner. Todd Hargrove har skrevet et meget godt blogginnlegg om hvordan kinesiotape fungerer. Et innlegg som vil mest sannsynlig er relevant også i denne sammenhengen. Hva sier […]

  18. Joe Edahson says:

    Well, I was watching the Euro 2012 last group match between Spain and Croatia with my aunt when my she spotted a Croatian player that alligned two pink tapes from the edges of the back of his neck down to his back. The first thing she said was, “what kind of fashion style is this again?”. I smiled and told her that its not realy a fashion thing but a kind of special tape for some kind of injuries. It was then I had the cause to browse the internet and I found ur blog that gave me more insight on the tape topic. Thanks

  19. Peter Lakatos says:

    Todd,

    Nice article!

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      Thanks Peter. Hey I heard you were at Kettlebility in Seattle recently. That’s my neighborhood (10 blocks away!). I wished I knew in advance I would have stopped by.

  20. Yordie Sands says:

    I’d love to believe but remain on the skeptical side.

  21. Sonja says:

    Last year I developed the so-called runners knee. All I can say is that when my knee is all taped up, I can run at least an hour longer than without it and if I stop an take it off within several hours after the run, the knee starts to hurt. So I keep it on and I’m fine. I only take it off when I go to work and expose my legs (luckily the summer’s nearing its end!)

  22. Grant says:

    Todd i was wondering if you still had the name/access to that article that talks about how taping improve somatosensory during muscular fatigue in the ankle? If so could you repost it under this comment? Im very interested in reading it!

  23. charles blake says:

    If you have never used it to reduce swelling in a joint either post injury or surgery, you are missing one of the greatest benefits ever. This is the reason my patients call it Magic Tape.

  24. Josiah says:

    Great article! I enjoy using the tape in practice, but I have to admit I sort of dread explaining it.. There are a lot of dubious physiological claims made by the tape companies that Idedinitely do not feel comfortable sharing with patients.

    A little clincal pearl I picked up that you might enjoy messing around with: if the pt has a painful ROM, you can perform a simple skin pull test to try to determine the most effective tape application i.e. use your thumb to provide skin tension in different directions while the pt moves through the painful ROM. Whichever direction is most palliative, try to mimic that with the tape. Results have been consistently positive in my experience. Magic? No.

  25. Great article – I’ve always felt that the effect of the tape on mechanoreceptors was far more important that the proposed ‘lifting’ mechanism described by Kase et al.

    For a bit more about the current evidence, check this out: http://www.mooreosteopathy.co.uk/2012/11/what-is-the-evidence-for-kinesio-tape/

    I’ll add this link to my page too.

    Cheers, Richard

  26. athlete says:

    wooooaaa still taking Lance Armstrong´s word?????

  27. mauricio herrador says:

    Nice job!
    We use kinesio tape at our Physical Therapy clinic in Ellensburg, WA., quite a lot and with amazing results. I’ve seen skeptical patients walk out in total disbelief as they could move better and feel less pain. We have concluded that research or not, the tape seems to have a positive effect at least 80% of the time and it only takes but a few minutes to put on, with a couple of exceptions, such as the plantar fascia and the edema of the knee techniques, which can take up to ten minutes to put on.

  28. Pau Mas says:

    Great article Todd, I’m collecting information about KT effects and mechanism but I can’t access to the link of the studies your recommend. Would it be possible for you to provide me with the link of these studies?

    Thanks a lot

  29. elnaz says:

    nice article,but what about leukoplast taping? how they work?

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