I’ve written about some ridiculous stuff over the past several years, and this one is up there with the best of them. On Monday, the Houston Zoo posted on their social media accounts about an aging Asian elephant named Methai being treated with kinesiology tape:
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!
In 2018, I wrote about a study that attempted to answer the question of whether or not the color of kinesiology tape (KT) influenced athletic performance. It didn’t. And the use of KT on elephants makes even less sense. But before I explain, here is a brief refresher for anyone who isn’t familiar with this product.
Even if you haven’t experienced the colorful and stretchy tape firsthand, it is very likely that you have at least seen KT, or some generic version of it, applied to someone else. It has become extremely popular over the past several years, primarily because of the prominent use of it by elite athletes during recent Olympic competitions. The designs of the applied tape can be quite ornate at times, and I like to compare them to crop circles, only instead of aliens they are a sign of gullibility and a powerful drive to confuse correlation and causation.
KT is often promoted by physical therapists and chiropractors for a variety of reasons, the most plausible being to support injured muscles and joints. Traditional athletic tape has been used for this purpose for a long time, and much longer than KT which was invented by a chiropractor in 1973. But the way that KT is applied is more for show than support.
Proponents claim that the tape is designed to support targeted body structures without limiting a patient’s range of motion, and to promote healing by improving lymphatic drainage, circulation, and “corticomotor activity”. But the evidence in support of this in humans, let alone elephants, is extremely weak. The reality is that KT isn’t doing anything more than gently pulling on the underlying skin.
Proponents of KT will also frequently claim that it improves athletic performance, but any specific effect of this nature is even less plausible than use for injured muscles and joints. There may be a non-specific, albeit short lived, benefit for a patient or athlete primed to expect a positive result. KT also clearly has benefited from the myriad placebo effects that have fooled believers in holographic energy bracelets, magnetic insoles, and many, many more examples of pseudoscience in exercise and sports. And just as with pain, there is no legitimate evidence to support KT for performance.
Our own Paul Ingraham has written, and then updated several times, an in depth discussion of therapeutic taping for his website. His conclusion, which is similar to mine, is that these products are “more about marketing than medicine” and not worth the money. He argues halfheartedly, however, that there could be a tiny sliver of transient potential benefit from having something applied to an injured muscle or joint that serves as a novel sensory input to distract from discomfort:
At best it’s just a bit of minor sensory tinkering with trivial and inconsistent pain relief benefits. That’s fine as far as it goes, but consider not feeding your money to a hype machine — it’s not worth it.
Now about that elephant. If KT has no specific benefit in humans, and at most some minor and brief placebo-driven alteration in the perception of pain or impetus to try a little harder during a workout, what could it possibly do for an elephant? Elephant skin is tougher and much thicker than human skin, 25 to 40 millimeters compared to our paltry 2 millimeters. Their muscles are also considerably stronger and their superficial vasculature held even more firmly in place. So the claim that a strip of stretchy tape is doing anything at all to elephant physiology approaches homeopathy levels of implausibility.
But can an elephant experience the benefit of placebo? Many proponents of alternative therapies for animals have argued that they can’t, thus attempting to prove that their pet belief system is the real deal. But they clearly can, even if they don’t exactly develop an expectation of positive results, because their caretakers, trainers, and veterinarians do. Our own Brennen McKenzie, the fabulous Skeptvet, wrote an entire book about pet placebo and alternative medicine for animals. Grant Ritchey and I interviewed him for the Prism Podcast last year, and I highly recommend checking it out.
Frankly, the Houston zoo should be embarrassed. Despite their claims to the contrary, kinesiology tape does not provide the “best care possible” for their animals. And their promotion of it, and the veterinarian who applied it, is an unfortunate endorsement for quackery.
Based on the bio provided by her practice website, Dr. Marziani appears to truly love animals and to want what is best for them. I don’t doubt for a second that she believes in the nonsense that she is peddling. But her background sounds like one of the boilerplate origin stories that practice-building firms provide for chiropractors:
During this time, Dr. Marziani tried countless western therapies to try to reduce her neck pain without any success. All the while, she had witnessed several patients of hers improve dramatically through acupuncture therapies. This compelled Dr. Marziani to try acupuncture herself. After waking up for the first time in years without a headache, thanks to acupuncture therapy, Dr. Marziani was a believer! She knew this was a therapy method that she had to learn to help her patients even more.
She went on to attend the Chi institute to learn animal acupuncture and then gravitated towards other forms of pseudoscience. She then took a course at Parker University and became certified in veterinary chiropractic and at some point started using kinesiology tape on elephants. She also once gave a testimonial for using applied kinesiology to help determine what herbal remedy will work best for her patients. Again, with emphasis, the Houston zoo should be embarrassed. Their animals deserve better.