Does Kinesio Tape Work for Runners? A Hard Look at the Science and Research
If you have been watching the Olympics, one thing you’ve definitely noticed is the preponderance of athletes sporting colorful web-like tapings on their shoulders, knees, and legs. This flashy new tape is called Kinesio Tape, which is the most prominent example of a new style of athletic tapings that are generically referred to as “elastic therapeutic tape” or “kinesiology tape.”
While you won’t find rolls of it at your local drug store, Kinesio Tape and its imitators (KT tape, Spider Tech, and others) can be ordered online and are sometimes found at running stores. The makers of these tapes make pretty bold claims about what the tape can do and how it does it.
Today’s article will look at scientific research on whether or not these tapes are of any use.
Research on the effectiveness of kinesio tape
There are a surprising number of studies on the use of kinesiology tape that have been conducted in the past ten years or so (many, I’m sure, funded by the companies who make the tape), so I won’t be able to cover all of their possible uses here. Rather, I’ll focus on their efficacy at treating overuse injuries, the kind which occur in runners.
Kinesio tape and runner’s knee injuries
In a study published in 2008 by Chen et al. at China Medical University, fifteen women with patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee) were studied when ascending and descending stairs with a kinesiology taping, a similar tape pattern using normal nonelastic athletic tape as a placebo, and no tape at all.
The activation of the quadriceps muscles (something which can be altered in cases of PFPS) and the impact when descending the steps were measured and compared, both between the taping conditions and with a group of ten healthy women who also did the stair stepping test with kinesiology tape, regular athletic tape, and no tape.
Chen et al. found that the taping modestly decreased the impact force when descending stairs vs. no tape and altered the muscle activation patterns to be more in line with those of healthy individuals.
Unfortunately, no information was collected on whether the women in the study actually experienced any pain relief.
Kinesio tape versus traditional patella taping
However, another relevant study by Cowan et al. in 2002 examined ten women and used a very similar experimental setup, but compared only a traditional patellar taping (using nonelastic athletic tape) with a very loosely applied placebo taping.2 The results were similar: a small but statistically notable change in quadriceps muscle activation, which again is associated with PFPS.
The similar results of Chen et al. and Cowan et al. hint that the postulated mechanism of action for these two different taping protocols may not be correct.
In the case of kinesiology taping, manufacturers claim that the taping increases fluid drainage through special channels formed in the skin and alters joint motion through the elastic tension applied to the tape. With a traditional patellar taping, proponents claim that the strongly-applied lateral tension forces the patella to track properly. It should be noted that in a proper application of Kinesio Tape to the patella, no lateral tension is applied. A similar result from two different applications indicates that the theories backing both of these approaches might not be correct.
Review of studies on kinesio tape
This finding was not lost on S. Williams and his colleagues at the Sports Performance Research Institute in New Zealand, who published an exhaustive review of the applications of kinesiology tape in February of this year. After examining dozens of studies, Williams et al. concluded:
“There was little quality evidence to support the use of KT [Kinesio Tape] over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries. KT may have a small beneficial role in improving strength, range of motion in certain injured cohorts and force sense error compared with other tapes, but further studies are needed to confirm these findings.”
Williams et al. focused largely on the specifics of Kinesio Tape as compared to other elastic tapes, but unfortunately did not directly address the method by which elastic tapings in general work (or don’t).
The answer is not entirely clear, but the best explanation to date is that the benefit of many types of braces and tapings can be traced not to any mechanical influence they have on joint motion, but tactile stimulation of the skin. New research is illuminating the role of nerve endings in the skin transmitting information to the brain about the position of your joints. For example, it’s easier to discern the position of your ankle when you are barefoot on a rough surface than a smooth one.
Similarly, the benefit of any kind of taping may be related to its stimulation of the skin rather than any special mechanical effect.
Summing up the research
So, is kinesiology tape a miracle cure? Probably not. But despite that, there is some evidence that it can have a modest effect on reducing pain and improving range of motion in injured athletes.
While the standard of evidence to which I hold most injury treatment methods is higher than what’s out there for kinesiology tape, its simplicity, ease of use, and virtually nonexistent side effects offset the rather limited evidence in its favor.
- Unlike traditional taping, which has a nasty tendency to bunch up, cause blisters, and interfere with other treatments, you can stretch, ice, swim, shower, foam roll, or massage right over an application of kinesiology tape since it’s so thin and flexible.
- And, unlike regular athletic tape, which is really only useful in taping arches in runners, kinesiology tape is pretty easy to apply to any part of the body.
- It is also not too expensive and stays on for several days.
You should never see any kind of brace or taping as a replacement for treatments that address the root cause of injuries, but kinesiology tapes have their place as an ancillary treatment that might take a bit of strain off a sore area or speed recovery from a minor injury.
I’m looking forward to better studies to more rigorously investigate how tactile stimulation of the skin is related to joint motion and injuries, but until then, you might find this stretchy tape to be useful once in a while—though if you skip out on it, you likely aren’t missing much.