Have you seen an athlete with colorful strips of tape decorating their skin? It’s more than a sports aid: Kinesiology Tape is used for arthritis, sciatica, plantar fasciitis, tendinitis, and more.
They say Kinesiology tape is good for pain relief and improving athletic performance, and when kinesiology tape is used after surgery, it helps with swelling and improves recovery outcomes.
But does kinesiology tape really work or is it all placebo?
We will question 5 advertised benefits:
Improves athletic performance
Reduces swelling and heals bruises
Promotes injury recovery
I’ll tell you now: not all of these benefits are proven true.
So, what is kinesiology tape?
“Kinesiology” is the study of the mechanics of body movements, and this tape is intended to facilitate or inhibit muscles to improve movement outcomes. It’s called kinesiology tape, kinesio tape, and KT tape interchangeably; there are also umbrella terms like athletic tape, therapeutic tape, or functional tape.
It’s nothing like the tape you have at home. First of all, it’s stretchy.
Kinesiology tape is made of elastic reinforced cotton. It can stretch up to 40% of its length, although how much stretch is applied depends on the purpose of the taping.
If you look closely at the image above, you’ll see when the man pulled his shoulders back, little ripples formed against the tape. That’s where the magic happens.
By lifting the skin away from the underlying tissue, the tape creates decompression. Supposedly, this decompression improves circulation of blood and lymph.
The soft skin stretch also stimulates the dense collection of superficial nerve receptors. This changes how we perceive our body, thereby relieving pain or facilitating muscles when exercising.
Kinesiology tape is waterproof so you can safely sweat and shower, and the it will still stay on for 3-7 days (depending on the type of tape used).
It’s applied all over the body to help with pain, swelling, weakness, and spasm.
Or at least, that’s what they say it does...
1. Kinesiology Tape Relieves Pain
One of the most interesting kinesiology tape benefits is pain relief. How does skin-level Kinesiology Tape work to reduce pain? Doctor of physical therapy and certified strength and conditioning specialist Megann Schooley explains: “All of your tissues — skin, connective tissue, fascia, muscles — contain sensory receptors that feel pain, temperature, and touch. Those receptors all contribute to proprioception—your brain’s sense of where your body is and what it’s doing. Kinesiology taping creates a lift that unloads the underlying tissues. Decompressing those tissues can change the signals going to the brain. When the brain receives a different signal, it’s going to respond differently.” So that’s the theory. Does it hold up in practice? A large, systemic review of 727 articles about kinesio taping (1), conducted in 2011, was able to determine this about taping benefits after a car accident: “Treatment with KT significantly improved pain levels and range of motion in patients with acute whiplash-associated disorders of the cervical spine both immediately and 24 hours after injury...” However, the review noted, “There are few high-quality studies examining the use of KT following musculoskeletal injury.” What have we learned since 2011?
Non-specific chronic low back pain is a frustrating and common condition that no one really knows what to do with… Western medicine will prescribe painkillers and shrug. A 2012 study of 60 adults found taping along the low back for just one week improved function and trunk muscle endurance (2). “The experimental group also had a greater decrease in pain than the control group immediately after treatment, which was maintained four weeks later.” So, kinesiology tape can help low back pain. The effect even sticks around for weeks after application! Another study looked at how taping can help pain from knee osteoarthritis (3). It had 187 participants receive 4 weeks of taping, and they tested results for next 2 months. They found the tape created “significantly higher and clinically meaningful reduction of pain,” and the benefits stuck around even after the treatments stopped. That 2019 study’s results match a smaller 2016 study’s findings (4) on KT tape benefits for degenerative knee arthritis patients’ pain, function, and joint range of motion. The current model used to understand and treat pain is “bio-psycho-social.” That means it’s not just about what’s happening in the body (biologically), it’s about the whole person. This is especially obvious with chronic pain. The pain is often worse when experiencing stress, poor sleep, or loneliness. Even after the injury is healed, pain may persist because the you’ve become so accustomed to an ache that you continue to feel it. It’s learned pain. Kinesiology tape’s ability to rewrite our perception of an area provides an amazing amount of hope for the 20% of adults who live with chronic pain every day. If you live with chronic pain, kinesio tape is worth a try.
2. Kinesiology Tape Improves Athletic Performance
Kinesiology tape has been around since the 1970s. It was invented when a Japanese chiropractor evolved the existing medical tape to more closely mimic human skin. He wanted tape that could provide joint support without restricted movement or circulation. But he couldn’t have predicted how it would blow up in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, when world-class athletes came out wearing strips of tape across their skin. The tape has been popular among athletes ever since. These athletes swear the tape prevents muscle fatigue, reduces stress on joints, and allows them to perform better than ever. One theory is that the constant sense of stretch activates mechanoreceptors, which increases muscle excitability. Physical therapist and owner of Fit Club Physical Therapy and Sports Performance Kellen Scantlebury says, “We can use more tension to turn on or excite a muscle.” However… The majority of studies have struggled to provide quality evidence that proves tape helps athletic performance. A 2016 review (5) analyzed 15 different studies of kinesio taping that specifically used healthy athletes as participants. Only 2 studies showed significant benefits.
In 2014, a “deceptive” study found a way to overcome the placebo effect when they tested kinesio tape (6). The researchers pretending they were placing “muscle sensors” on the skin, instead of telling participants they were getting athletic tape. One group got real kinesiology tape, one got fake tape, and the third group got no tape at all. Then, they immediately tested athletic performance. Specifically, they measured “torque,” the ability of a force to cause rotation on a lever. If taping could create meaningful improvement in athletic performance, you would expect to see a clear difference in torque with and without taping. But their study showed no difference between the three groups, and concluded the benefits athletes report must be placebo.
Let’s consider one more study (7).
This one didn’t test athletes, but healthy young women, and it found a very interesting distinction based on who receives tape. It was designed to test knee proprioception (that sense of where your body is). There was a tape and untaped group, and they walked for 30min. Researchers found no obvious difference after between the tape and untaped group… However, when accounting for the participant’s natural ability for propiception, they saw improvement in those who started with poor proprioception. To put it simply, athletic participants had no difference, but naturally clumsy participants improved their coordination. This pilot study shows tape may be helpful in preventing injuries by improving coordination, although its ability to improve athletic performance is placebo at best. Ironic, considering how tape found its fame.
3. Kinesiology Tape Fixes Posture
Bad posture can cause stress on joints that contributes to chronic pain like back pain or aggravates joint disorders like arthritis. It hurts confidence, lowers energy levels, and affects how other people think of you. Bad posture is a common problem. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution in sight. It’s hard to fix your posture: it’s a lifelong habit that’s ingrained in your muscle strength, fascial tightness, and neural habits. How to improve your posture is a complicated equation of strengthening or activating inhibited/weak muscles, and relaxing and lengthening tight muscles. Perhaps the most difficult component, though, is the mindfulness. It’s hard to break the habit of slouching.
That’s where braces come in as a popular crutch. They physically hold you in place so you can’t slouch. The problem? They’re bulky, expensive, and once you take the brace off, the benefits often disappear. Kinesio tape is a great alternative to posture braces. Rather than physically hold you position, the tape stretches the skin to send a powerful sensory message to your sensory and motor nerves. You’ve already heard how tape helps with proprioception (your sense of where your body is) and rewriting stories of pain (how your body feels). So it makes sense kinesiology tape improves your posture. Plus, if you slouch, you feel the resistance of the tape, and it reminds you to straighten up. These benefits were confirmed in a 2014 study (8), that found tape caused significant improvement in posture of desk workers.
The pros of kinesiology tape tape VS braces:
Creates ongoing 24/7 treatment, even while you sleep
Comfortable and breathable
No restriction (full mobility of joints)
Able to shower with kinesiology tape on
The power of kinesiology tape to fix posture is an encouraging discovery! Changing your posture is hard enough. Take all the help you can get!
4. Kinesiology Tape Reduces Swelling & Heals Bruises
The lymphatic system is a really wonderful piece of human engineering. It’s part of the circulatory and immune systems; sometimes called our “detox system.” But when it can’t keep up with life’s stresses, we get swelling, a sense of heaviness, limited mobility, aches, infections, and other problems. Thankfully, because of how lymph vessels tie into our skin, it’s easy to manually stimulate the lymphatic system to pick up the pace.
In 2008, the Medical University of Warsaw did a study over 10 days with a special lymphatic massage that reduced thigh edema (9). Then they gave half their participants kinesiology taping. They determined “The application of Kinesiology Taping in the study group produced a significantly faster reduction of the edema compared to standard lymphatic massage.”
40% of women treated for breast cancer experience swelling. In 2014, researchers wanted to test if KT tape could help these women (10).
Their theory: “Kinesiology Taping applications pull the skin slightly, creating more space between the dermis and fascia. Lymphatic taping is thus quite similar to lymphatic drainage [massage], though it allows patients to receive therapeutic benefits 24 hours a day.” They tested 28 women and found significant reduction in swelling in the KT group and no reduction in the control. Researchers noted when comparing kinesiology tape VS compression bandages, the compression bandages caused a greater reduction in edema (perhaps 15% more). However, compression bandages are restrictive, difficult to self-apply, and sweaty in hot weather, so KT tape is a valuable alternative when ease of use and comfort are a priority, they said. Let’s look at one more study. From 2010-2012, the Lithuanian University of Health Sciences studied how kinseio tape might help 542 patients who had a total knee replacement surgery (11). This is a major operation that can take 4-6 months to recover from, and one of the challenges of the rest period following the surgery is the build-up of fluid and swelling in the leg. Fortunately, the tape group had better outcomes with pain, swelling, and functionality (ability to straighten the leg) in early post-op, compared to the control group. Upon removing the tape, researchers noted a visually striking benefit: bruises disappeared under the tape.
5. Kinesiology Tape Promotes Injury Recovery
So far we’ve seen how kinesiology tape reduces pain, decreases swelling and bruising, and even helps with clumsiness. It’s no surprise, then, that the tape does in fact support recovery from injury. Let’s look at a couple case studies.
One man was suffering shoulder pain, during exercise, daily functions like holding the handle when on the bus, and even when he wasn't doing anything at all. Tests showed his shoulder blade was rotated downward and this poor posture was causing pain and dysfunction. After a month of taping, however, his symptoms disappeared and the angle of his shoulder blade was corrected! (12)
In another case, they treated a soccer player's ankle sprain with daily taping for two months. Once again, his pain, function, and ability to stand on his ankle all improved greatly. (13)
A larger study tested taping's benefits for 30 participants with chronic ankle instability. They only did two days of taping, but found their balance clinically improved, and most significantly, their balance remained improved when they re-tested 3 days after treatment. (14)
Tape as tool for injury recovery is especially valuable for pediatric treatments, because children may struggle with following physical therapy instructions or staying still for massage.
Kinesiology Tape & Pregnancy
Anyone who’s been pregnant can tell you about the toll it takes on your back and hips. Not to mention swollen feet, agitated sciatica, and other aches and pains!
But it’s hard to find relief, since ingested medications and prescription pain relievers can transfer to the baby.
Kinesiology tape is safe for pregnancy and can relieve pain, reduce fatigue, and keep mom-to-be feeling good.
You can even use kinesiology tape to make a “baby belt” that offloads the weight of the baby bump. It's more flexible and comfortable than the literal "baby belts" they sell.
A prenatal massage followed by kinesiology tape treatment is an amazing way to treat yourself and feel good for weeks to follow.
Kinesiology Tape helps you recover from injuries and chronic pain.
So there you have it! You can be confident that kinesiology tape will help with pain, swelling, and injury recovery, and even support you through the daily stresses of posture. Whether you’re a desk worker with a stiff neck or are recovering from whiplash after a car accident, tape may be just what you need to take control of your health. On the flip side, if you’re an athlete looking for a quick boost, you might have to keep looking. Kinesiology tape is often offered at chiropractic clinics, by physical therapists, and by massage therapists as a way to extend the benefits of your soft tissue treatment. It’s common to charge a fee for the tape (which can be rather expensive to purchase), usually around $10-20 per application.
You can also self-apply kinesio tape, although you should always follow instructions from a trained professional, as correct use requires an understanding of both kinesiology and the tape itself. (If you want to learn, I can teach you taping as part of a private massage lesson.) I offer kinesiology taping in my therapeutic massage practice, and in an effort to share its benefits with the world, I don’t charge any sort of upgrade fee for it. It’s completely free, included with every massage I give. I've seen it change lives, so I'm always excited to offer someone their first taping!
It's part of what distinguishes my practice as results-based or medical massage (as opposed to just relaxation massage, find out what the 6 major differences are between the two).
P.S. Already got some tape on? Here are tips about how to make it last the longest! Which brand of kinesiology tape is best depends on your goals - there’s extra-sticky strong, waterproof tape for athletes who sweat and shower, hypoallergenic tape for sensitive skin, and gentle tape for older folk with thin skin. Rock Tape is the top brand in the industry, and in my experience, it lasts the longest (with a single application staying on for a week). Pro tip: wear your tape longer by snipping away at the bits that peel off with a sharp pair of scissors. The corners should be rounded before application to prevent early peeling. You can leave the tape on and it will slowly peel off on its own, over 5-7 days. When you remove tape, be gentle to avoid damaging the skin (especially for older folks with thin skin!). Peel the tape backwards, not upwards. I like to soak it off in a bath and use a bit of soap to break down the adhesive if it’s extra sticky. It’s not painful to remove kinesiology tape… although those using KT tape on hairy legs will want to be extra careful about how they peel it off!'
I hope you find the opportunity to experience the benefits of KT tape for yourself! :)
Jesse Martel is a Licensed Massage Therapist who practices in Seattle, Washington. She has helped many people overcome neck/shoulder injuries and chronic back pain with Upgraded Myofascial Release massage. Treatment includes Aromatherapy, Myofascial Release, Cupping, Lymphatic Drainage, and Kinesiology Tape at one flat rate. Her website is SageBodyworkSeattle.com.
1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23306413 2) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1836955312700887 3) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1759720X19869135 4) https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jpts/28/1/28_jpts-2015-727/_article/-char/ja/ 5) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1466853X16301857?via%3Dihub 6) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1356689X14001416 7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25270548 8) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09593985.2014.960054 9) https://europepmc.org/article/med/19240683 10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4520367/ 11) https://liguria.aifi.net/files/2014/08/kinesiotaping-e-protesi-ginocchio.pdf 12) https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jpts/27/2/27_jpts-2014-461/_article/-char/ja/ 13) https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jpts/27/7/27_jpts-2015-188/_article/-char/ja/ 14) https://www.natajournals.org/doi/full/10.4085/1062-6050-51.2.03