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Does the Neon Colored Tape Olympians Wear Really Do Anything?





If you’re watching the 2012 London Olympics, you’ve probably noticed athletes dressed up in neon colored tape. And you might be wondering, what the heck is that stuff and why are they wearing it?

Or, even, should I be wearing it?

The tape is called Kinesio Tape

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and it hit the Olympic scene in 1988 but really seemed to become ubiquitous in the Beijing games after the company that sells it donated rolls to trainers, therapists, and practitioners to use on Olympic athletes.

Dr. Kenzo Kase, a Japanese chiropractor and acupuncturist, the original developer of the tape, explains how the tape works on his company’s website:

“The Kinesio Taping® Method is applied over muscles to reduce pain and inflammation, relax overused or tired muscles, and support muscles in movement on a 24-hour-a-day basis. The taping is non-restrictive and allows for full range of motion. In contrast, more traditional sports tape is wrapped around a joint strictly for stabilization and support during an athletic event. Kinesio® Tex Tape is used to treat anything from headaches to foot problems and everything in between. Just a few examples include rehabilitation from sports injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, lower back strain/pain (subluxation, herniated disc), knee and shoulder conditions. There are many more.”

In a nutshell,  the tape intends to help athletes who hurt, from a variety of causes, hurt less and allow them to play or participate in their sport.

But it’s not a cure. Kerry Walsh-Jennings’ right shoulder was draped in kinesio tape in the 2008 Games but ended up in surgery. Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, with a large blue strip of kinesio tape over his calf and tendon,  ruptured his Achilles tendon in the 110m hurdles in London and is headed for a surgical repair.

Does Kinesio Tape Do What it Claims to Do?

“applied over muscles to reduce pain and inflammation, relax overused or tired muscles, and support muscles in movement on a 24-hour-a-day basis.”

I’ve used the tape with clients and have had it applied to my own injuries and the results vary. Sometimes, it’s as if you’ve waved a wand over the person’s head, uttered some gibberish, and presto, the pain is gone and motion is restored. Other times, nothing.

Does it “reduce inflammation”? I’ve not seen any science that supports that claim specifically but if wearing tape facilitates more normal movement, we know that movement can reduce swelling (one of the reasons continuous passive motion machines are used following knee surgery). So, you might then conclude that wearing the tape reduces inflammation but whether it’s substantially better than some other method that facilitates motion, no one knows.

How Does Kinesio Tape Work?

Good question.

It’s human nature to want an answer to something we don’t understand and sometimes we’ll explain how something works even if, in truth, we don’t know. We don’t like ambiguity or the unknown.

If your doctor says to you, “Well, Jane, you need this medicine for your joint pain and we have no idea how it works,” there’s a good chance you’ll feel more than little uneasy about taking it.

Many health care practitioners are guilty of adding explanations to treatments that are, well, unfounded. Things like, Myofascial release stretches your fascia making your motion easier and reducing swelling, or  Traction creates a vacuum that pulls your injured disc back in place.

I’ve talked about this before – why so many things seem to work

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: massage, joint mobilization, myofascial release, cranial sacral therapy, taping, and the list goes on.

Your body doesn’t care about why something works. We do. We create explanations to ease the ambiguity and to help us feel better about our decisions.

But, at least for now and until someone proves otherwise, claims that kinesio tape improves lymph drainage, reduces swelling, alters body temperature, and reduces inflammation are unfounded.

What we do know is that the elastic, adhesive quality of the tape stimulates receptors in the skin. The receptors modulate the perception of pain and, as a result, movement improves. The unique quality of the tape – that it’s highly elastic – provides a different feel than a stiffer tape such as white athletic tape. And it’s the feeling of the tape that then alters how your brain processes the information and associated movements.

For example, patients who wore a simple, elastic knee sleeve during a series of tests twelve months after anterior cruciate reconstruction, produced significantly more force and had better balance than without the neoprene sleeve.1

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The sleeve offered nothing more than pressure and contact on the skin.

And that’s all we really know about how kinesio tape works despite claims to the contrary (and if you have any articles that prove me wrong, please feel free to share those in the comments section).

Should You Use Kinesio Tape?

That depends.

If your problem is a garden variety ache or pain and not a structural fault of tissue (so no torn meniscus, ruptured Achilles tendon, severely torn rotator cuff for example), as a means to feeling better, moving better, feeling like you have some control over your body aches and pains, kinesio tape is relatively inexpensive, easy to apply option and has very few risks other than allergies to the adhesive.

It may or may not help you but there’s little risk in trying it.

If you’re the kind of person that must have a concrete explanation of how and why kinesio tape works, that needs proof, that could play the role of Mr. Spock in Star Trek, well, it’s probably not for you.

A friend and former student of mine, Jimmy Welsh, PT

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teaches practitioners the method of taping. Jimmy has an extensive background in orthopedics, biomechanics and tissue physiology and here’s what he had to say about kinesio taping:

“I have seen and found results from Kinesiotaping to be very interesting, bizarre, wonderful, and at times intriguing that I cannot always explain. The science is catching up to the testimonials. This is an awesome tool to have in your bag to supplement what I are already doing. I use it daily and it has really helped me improve my understanding of the human body.”

You can save yourself some time by working with someone like Jimmy who understands the body and how to use the tape to maximize its function. Sure, you can experiment with it but a seasoned practitioner will help you navigate the ins and outs of taping much more effectively.

Finally, there a lot of things done for people who hurt that we don’t understand completely, that lack “proof” but seem to be helpful. A meta analysis of kinesio taping

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was published earlier this year and the conclusion was that it wasn’t very helpful yet I know of a number of case reports that suggest the opposite.

So, should we abandon all techniques that lack rigorous scientific proof? Well, if we do, we might be all twiddling our thumbs for quite a while.

There’s a place for things like kinesio taping, things that might relieve pain, stiffness, and improve movement…but without the unfounded explanations.

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Photo: www.topnews.in

Doug Kelsey, PT, PhD – Author of The Runner’s Knee Bible

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and Build a Rock Solid Core: Stop the Sit Ups and Save Your Spine
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Creator of Fusion Performance Training –  for people who want to live a healthier and more robust life and feel younger as they get older.

Grab your copy of the Fusion Manifesto! 

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A great overview of how Fusion is designed, what makes it so different, and why it works so well. And, it’s FREE! Send it to your friends, or family! Just click on the image to get it!

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  1. Kuster, M. S., K. Grob, et al. (1999). “The benefits of wearing a compression sleeve after ACL reconstruction.” Med Sci Sports Exerc 31(3): 368-371. [
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  • Charlie Nichols

    Similar to your explanation but another perspective see http://www.bettermovement.org/2011/how-does-kinseotape-work/

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    Charlie Nichols

  • Anonymous

    its interesting—-I guess with everything it comes down to risk/benefit ratio IMO. We do a ton of things in medicine which may or may not be demonstrated in RCTs to show benefit. However, the downside of taping is 0 other than maybe skin irritation assuming of course it is part of a treatment plan not THE treatment singularly. The upside: looks very cool, might provide some type of assistance (mentally or physically). I might put some on every joint on my body after today’s triathlon—–maybe lime green or hot pink?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the link Charlie -

  • Anonymous

    My vote is lime green :)

  • allbecomeone

    They don’t know how aspirin works to relieve pain either…..

  • Michael Fournier

    the Health risk may be 0 but the COST is not why pay money for something that is really not doing anything. That said Athletes have been taping for support for years and in a application where the tape gives joint support it can have some benefit. But I am still VERY skeptical one or 2 strips of tape down a hamstring are going to do anything to help heal a muscle injury deep in the muscle. And IF you feel applying the tape will allow you to keep playing with a injury IT WILL do harm as the only sure cure for a torn muscle is STOP the activity that caused the injury long enough for the muscle to fully heal or you will make it worse or continue to re-injure the muscle. A few pieces of stretchy tape on the skin does nothing. But also people swear by Athletic rubs that have menthol that provides a heating effect but really that is not doing anything to heal the injury ether but it make it feel a but better so the tape my give some pain relief (or appear to) but it is not doing anything to actually heal or prevent a injury.

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