Kinesio Tape: The Athlete’s New Mojo
At Saturday’s Olympics, the black, vaguely calligraphic design on the shoulder of volleyballer Kerri Walsh most certainly prompted the following question in a range of languages: What the hell is that?
A few curious Web posters thought it might be a fierce tattoo. But no, NBC’s Olympics coverage says it’s black Kinesio tape on Walsh’s right shoulder, which was surgically treated last winter. One commentator said the tape eases pain, stabilizes joints, increases circulation, and reduces lymphedema. If so, that’s some tape.
The official web site for the product emphasizes the benefits of the tape—it’s particularly elastic and sticky—and the all-important taping method—which accounts for the funky design on Walsh’s shoulder. The 4-inch-wide tape can be cut lengthwise for “Y” applications (which are designed to stabilize muscle or prevent its contraction or otherwise do something nice), like that along Walsh’s scapular spine and posterior deltoid (see graphic below). In Walsh’s case, another Y application was applied to her middle deltoid, along with uncut tape that crisscrossed the joint. Kinesio tape evidently comes in a variety of colors, which (as far as I can tell) are for fashion purposes alone—or in the case of black, to intimidate.
The Kinesio web site claims that 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 channel more freely.” Nice-sounding words to the medically uneducated, and bullshitty to the rest of us. Moreover, I’m not entirely sure how one would even go about proving these physiologic effects.
Evidently only one randomized clinical trial has been conducted to evaluate Kinesio taping for any musculoskeletal condition. A quasi-double-blind* study, published just last month in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, assessed the short-term self-reported effects of Kinesio or sham taping in 42 young adults with rotator-cuff conditions. The investigators observed immediate improvement in pain-free shoulder abduction with Kinesio taping but no other statistically significant benefit (range of movement, pain, or disability) over sham taping during a 6-day treatment period. The authors suggest why Kinesio taping may improve immediate pain-free movement (gate-control theory, anyone?) but acknowledge their complete speculation on the subject.
* One author was blinded to the taping methods used, and taping methods were different between Kinesio and sham subjects.