- Elastic therapeutic tape made a highly visible appearance on athletes in all sorts of Olympic sports.
- Athletes and physical therapists say the tape reduces inflammation and pain, and improves performance.
- The evidence is still fuzzy on if or how the tape works, leaving open the possibility of a powerful placebo effect.
Along with snazzy racing outfits and sleek warm-up gear, many Olympians at the London Games have been accessorizing with athletic tape in various hues and patterns.
On the beach volleyball court, it seemed, more players than not wore lines of tape around their knees, shoulders and even in fanned strips down their abdomens. Black, blue and patterned strips appeared on gymnasts, runners, divers, discus-throwers and even table tennis players.
So, what's up with all that tape? And is it really doing anything to help?
Anecdotally, athletes and physical trainers swear by the stretchy adhesive, known as Kinesio tape or elastic therapeutic tape. If applied correctly, they say, the tape can relieve pain from tendonitis or muscle inflammation, giving competitors an athletic boost.
Scientifically, though, very few studies have been done that truly isolate the effects of the tape compared to other measures that athletes take to treat and prevent injuries.
Until better data come in, it remains possible that the tape provides more of a psychological benefit than a physical one -- its mere presence reminding athletes to be careful with a sore area or providing confidence through a sense that something is being done to help with healing.
"I've seen on the playing field and in clinics that people are getting a benefit from it," said Mary Ann Willmarth, a doctor of physical therapy at Harvard University Health Services in Cambridge, Mass. "We need the studies now to prove from an evidence-based standpoint that it's actually the tape that's doing it and not something else. I'm really curious to see what the studies will show."
Traditionally, athletes have used athletic tape like braces to prevent injuries by limiting movement in joints, particularly ankles or wrists, said Adam Knight, a sports biomechanist at Mississippi State University. And plenty of studies show that ankle taping reduces strain and helps prevent sprains.
But the stretchy tape that has noticeably adorned a large number of Olympians has different goals. The tape was developed in the mid-1970s by a Japanese chiropractor and acupuncturist named Kenzo Kase. Instead of using the rigid athletic tapes available at the time, Kase's idea was to create a product that more accurately mimicked the elastic quality of human skin.
For decades, physical trainers and therapists have been using elastic therapeutic tape (including the brand Kase developed, called Kinesio) on both athletes and on young patients with muscular dystrophy and other disorders.