What do Olympic athletes, Tour de France cyclists, recreational runners, and Houston elephants have in common?
They each use stretchy, colorful tape to try to treat their pain.
You might see our elderly Asian elephant, Methai sporting a new look in the yard! She’s been fitted with kinesio tape by Dr. Marziani, one of our consulting veterinarians who specializes in rehabilitation therapy, chiropractic, and other non-invasive therapeutics in animals. The kinesio tape is an elastic sports tape designed to relieve pain while supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Since Methai is getting up there in age (she’s 51!) she’s starting to show signs of arthritis and stiffness. Our animal care professionals work hard to ensure every animal at the Zoo receives the best care possible!
The above image recently made its rounds throughout the physical therapy social media community. It was met with incredulity, shock, disappointment, laughter, and frustration.
As a physical therapist who frequently writes about health and medical misinformation and the benefits of conservative healthcare, you might think I am pleased to see a conservative treatment approach again attention. I would be pleased if the treatment was effective and supported in the research.
At best, Kinesio tape provides a small improvement in pain with activity. More often than not, the effects are non-existent.
Kinesio tape was developed with the intent of improving lymphatic drainage and circulation for healing while also increasing the activity of local nerve receptors and specific brain regions to increase muscle and joint control. Those effects don’t happen.
In reality, Kinesio tape — also known as KT tape and other brands — is largely a placebo. The small pain relief is a real experience but not because of the proposed mechanism. The relief comes from the belief the treatment will work.
When we expect pain relief from treatment, we activate specific areas of our brain and release specific hormones that cause pain reduction. On the flip side, anxiety and fear of movement can enhance pain. Applying the tape may remove that anxiety or fear of movement leading to a reduction in pain.
That is a good thing right? Sort of.
A primary issue is providing or using the best treatment option. As a physical therapist, I can have a larger impact on a patient’s life by helping them move — either through building confidence, teaching new movement patterns, or improving strength and endurance — and teaching them about pain.
Just because something “works” does not mean it should be used. Kinesio tape falls well below a plethora of other treatment options in effectiveness and doesn’t have a place in rehab.
If you have more confidence running or cycling with Kinesio tape, I am not saying to immediately discard it, but I am saying there are better alternatives. You do not need the tape for support or pain relief. This brings me to the issue with the elephant receiving Kinesio tape.
Rehab providers — physical therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, physicians — are responsible for educating their patients on which treatments are effective and should be considered. The veterinarian who applied the tape to the elephant is causing more harm than benefit.
While I have no doubt she is genuine in her desire to help, it is not possible for Kinesio tape to help an elephant. The elephant's skin registers at a robust 25–40 mm thick while humans are stuck at 2 mm. Since we are unable to explain the benefits of the tape to the elephant, there is no placebo effect taking place.
There is no plausible way the tape is helping the elephant with pain and stiffness.
Unfortunately, people will read the story and seek Kinesio tape for their pain. This quick “fix” approach may stop people from seeking treatments that are effective for arthritis, like exercise.
It is disappointing to see healthcare professionals and large organizations continue supporting Kinesio tape. Both people and animals deserve better care.