It took nearly 30 years for Dr. Kenzo Kase’s invention, Kinesio Tape, to attract widespread attention. Kase, a chiropractor, developed the Kinesio Taping Method in 1979 and then engineered his own therapeutic tape to accompany it. By 2004 he had published 20 books on the subject, but it wasn’t until 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, that he finally got the exposure he needed.
More than 50,000 rolls of Kinesio were donated to 58 countries, including the United States, and it was American beach volleyball star Kerri Walsh Jennings who caught the attention of fans, journalists, and fellow athletes when she took to the sand wearing it in patches of black and pink across her right shoulder.
Walsh Jennings was recovering from rotator cuff surgery at the time and the tape held firm as she smashed ball after ball at her opponents, overpowering them on her way to a gold medal alongside partner Misty May-Treanor. The win extended their unbeaten streak to 108 matches—and Kinesio received its biggest endorsement yet.
"There is little quality evidence to support the use of KT over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries."
Kase says the tape works by lifting the epidermis of the skin, allowing blood to flow more easily to an injured area, improving the circulation and reducing inflammation and pain along the way, effectively making incremental changes to fascia over time. But studies of the tape have failed to show any significant benefits or changes in muscle strength and performance. Despite this, the popularity of the tape continues to grow and many who use it for day-to-day activities, like running, maintain that it has therapeutic value.
In sports, where every athlete is searching for a competitive advantage, or to find a way to lengthen their careers, Kinesio Tape is another shot in the dark, but one that doesn’t come in the form of a pill or injection. The tape operates under the idea that it can improve performance, and even if its physiological effects are limited, that psychological boost might be all that really matters.
If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs you’ve probably noticed tape on the likes of John Wall, James Harden, and others, long black strips spreading across their backs and shoulders, like giant spiders are hiding under their jerseys.
Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls point guard whose tumultuous career has been marked by periods of wild success—including being named the youngest MVP in league history—and debilitating injury, was one of the first NBA players to try the tape. He was dealing with a neck inflammation at the time, but shortly after he started wearing the tape the league’s front office banned it. That didn’t last long, and the NBA announced almost immediately after the initial ban that they would allow the tape on an experimental basis. Soon, superstars like Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony were also wearing it and other competing brands, like Rock Tape, appeared.
Kase’s earliest clients were sumo wrestlers, whose giant bodies are susceptible to myriad injuries, but its application stretches far beyond power sports. In basketball, where lower-body injuries are frequent—knees, ankles and feet in particular—the tape can fit the contours of the body and offer a new form of treatment.
Kase told the Guardian that the tape is like shiatsu massage, acupuncture, or herbal medicines. The product is something that Europeans and Americans perhaps took longer to come around to, he said, but soon enough NBA teams were employing Certified Kinesio Taping Practitioners, trained first hand by Kase in how best to apply the tape.
Still, studies of the tape have produced mixed results. “There is little quality evidence to support the use of KT over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries,” according t0 a 2012 study published in Sports Medicine. “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.”
A 2014 study found that "the application of KT in the gastrocnemius muscles has no effect on healthy muscle tone, extensibility nor strength." Another study, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, concluded that “the potential to increase strength by application of Kinesio tapes is negligible.”
Skeptics argue that because the tape is only worn on the surface of the skin, it has little impact on deep-muscle injuries. Instead, they suggest, it may provide a placebo effect.
"I'm still struggling to come to terms with how tape that is placed on skin can have any real, major effect on performance, other than potentially, a psychological effect," John Brewer, head of sport and exercise sciences and director of sport at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom, told WebMD. "The actual putting on of the tape sometimes is almost part of that ritual. It's almost part of their uniform for the sport that they're doing, part of their kit. It makes them feel ready for action."
In sports, where every athlete is searching for a competitive advantage, or to find a way to lengthen their careers, Kinesio Tape is another shot in the dark.
Kase, for his part, maintains that the tape is effective. In that interview with the Guardian he said the tape worked so well that he treated his Chihuahua with it after it was attached by another dog.
“It was really horrible, but I put the tape on and, after three or four days, he started jumping around again,” Kase said. “We have also used the tape on dachshunds. As they get older, their abdominal muscles become weaker because they have such a long body and their backbones are separated very easily. I use the tape to reconstruct the abdominal area and make sure they do not overstretch.”
Kase went on to say that because the tape is waterproof it can even be used to treat fish.
The fact that the tape’s popularity continues to climb may, in fact, boost its effectiveness—the positive reinforcement ensuring athletes of its validity. If they think it makes them feel better, then maybe it does. Even factors like the color, cost, and application of the tape can affect its perceived efficacy.
But if the tape is only effective as a placebo, that’s no reason to stop using it. A study published this year, in the European Journal of Sport Science, examined 79 elite athletes and their attitudes toward placebo-induced performance enhancement. Almost half of the athletes said they experienced placebo effects in the past and more than 80 percent believed that placebos could affect their sports performances positively.
“In the past, placebo effects were thought of as a ‘fake’ effect,” wrote Shona Halson and David Martin in a 2013 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, “but today, the powerful performance-related outcomes associated with improved belief in a training program or novel intervention are seen as real effects that need to be harnessed.”
On his website, where Kase posts videos and speaking dates of his healing philosophies, he calls on patients to share their success stories, “because you, truly, are the heart of Kinesio.” And that might just be what makes it so effective.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.