In the 1970’s Dr. Kenzo Kase developed Kinesiology tape (K-tape) as an alternative, and more dynamic, supportive tape to aid athletes during their sport and exercise endeavours (Kase et al., 2003). His team of researchers noted that the commonly used zinc oxide tape (Miralles et al., 2014) was inflexible and significantly inhibited movement around the joints of the body after application. Although taping is used to provide support around weak or injured joints, the high levels of inhibition often rendered the joint, or area of application, inoperative therefore reducing athletic capability.
K tape was invented as a permeable and active skin-like tape that could be worn for a longer duration than previous sports tapes, to reduce patients’ pain and symptoms between clinical visits, and aid with the natural tissue healing process (Kase et al., 2013). It was developed to maintain support about the injured or weak area but to also move with the natural resonance of the stretching and shortening of the skin about the joint.
It came to the fore at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games where it was used extensively for injury prevention and performance enhancement producing significant increases in its popularity and use across all sport and exercise activities as a result (Fernandes de Jesus et al., 2017). In the last decade the commercialisation and retail of K tape, and its various brands, has exceeded all expectation and by 2023 it is predicted to be worth around US$ 310million, up from US$180million in 2017 (Global Kinesio Tape Industry Report, 2018). This report also lists 20 different manufacturers of K tape who are producing the tape on an industrial level.
K tape is purported to produce a number of benefits including: improved range of motion; improved proprioception; improved neuromuscular control; improved muscular strength; reduced swelling; reduced pain following injury and improved tissue healing (Yoshida and Kahanov, 2007; Fu et al., 2008; Thelen et al., 2008; Chang et al., 2012; Lins et al., 2013). Surprisingly, however, the empirical research on these benefits is inconclusive, anecdotal, contradictory and lacks definitive agreement based on limited scientific investigation most notably around methodology, tape application (trained practitioner vs self-application) and manufacturer brand variations (Miller et al., 2011). For example one brand suggests that their tape can be stretched to 140% of its original length and still have these benefits whereas other brands recommend no stretch other than that put on the original tape roll (15-20%). It would therefore seem prudent to develop a tape application method, noting brand variations around stretch characteristics, design, elastic limit and adhesives to help the athlete and practitioner in maximising the reported benefits. Similarly it would seem appropriate to evaluate the purported benefits especially linked to pain and performance from aspects associated with physical, physiological and psychological perspectives. This is where our research had led.
The K tape application process is dictated by several material and resultant mechanical properties. These material factors include: the type of weave and thread of the tape; the type of fiber used; the thickness of the fiber and subsequent weave and thread; and the adhesive used on the tape. The resultant mechanical properties impact the total effective stretch length (noting the elastic limit), the force required to stretch the tape, the reliability of the application process (practitioner vs self-application), the direction of application (origin to insertion or distal to proximal) and the pressure sensitive adhesive (PSA) used on the tape (not documented in the current literature). This may all seem a little over the top however once we had developed a reliable method of practitioner application using one brand of tape (Catlow and Doggart, 2014; Doggart and Catlow, 2015b; Doggart and Catlow, 2015d) and then compared it to several other brands of tape (Doggart and Catlow, 2016; Catlow and Doggart, 2018) there was significant difference between all brands in both maximum stretch (elastic limit) before losing tape integrity and also the force required by the practitioner to apply the maximum stretch. Therefore the person applying the tape would require a level of skilled practice in order to maximise the purported benefits of each brand of tape for each application. Research has performed laboratory based protocols using advanced technological equipment and protocols to accurately note and record the elastic limit of some brands of K tape (Morris et al., 2013), however as objective and methodologically correct this may be in a laboratory setting, our research is performed ‘in-situ’ using real practitioners, real patients, real injuries and ‘real-skin’.
The impact of K tape remains inconclusive across many aspects. These include: acute vs short vs long term effects; performance vs injury prevention vs rehabilitation; functional vs physiological vs psychological (Morris et al., 2013; Kase et al., 2013; Fernandes de Jesus et al., 2017). Our preliminary research looking at acute and short term effects of K tape application, in both lower and upper limbs, has suggested that the application of K tape is detrimental to skin blood flow, i.e. reduces the flow of blood around the immediate area of K tape application, and as such could have a potential negative impact on performance of the associated muscle groups in the area (Catlow et al., 2017; Catlow et al., 2018). It is unsure if this relates to how the tape may reduce swelling in reducing blood flow (physiologically) to the injured area or if it genuinely inhibits blood flow to active muscles.
Our research around the perceived reduction in pain has suggested a significant positive response from over 150 kinesiology tape users specifically for this reason, most notably the perceived immediate impact (<24hrs) following its application, i.e. significant reduction in pain, following application, within a 24hr period. Similarly it is unsure if this is due to a genuine physiological effect or if it is psychological. A pilot performance study looking at golf performance (drive distance) has suggested an increase in performance (>6%) but not statistically significant.
Our preliminary research appears to be demonstrating a similar pattern of uncertainty in terms of outcomes, as per previously published studies, either in sport performance, pain reduction or physiological impact. However our research is grounded in a reliable application method using real patients and performers which we believe strengthens the ecological validity of the research area as well as moving towards a definitive ‘application to outcome’ use with kinesiology tape.
Our current research with Kinesiology Tape remains fourfold: