Injured Olympians Turn to Tape: The Sticky Science of Kinesio

It's everywhere: on abs, legs, backs, even backsides.

The neon tape swathing sprinters and swimmers alike, called Kinesio, is taking London by storm.

"It's all over the Olympics," said Dr. Jennifer Solomon of New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery. "Athletes love it."

Developed by a Japanese chiropractor, Kinesio claims to cut pain and boost performance. And judging by its prominence at this year's Games, athletes think it works.

"If you ask them, they say it does," said Solomon, team physician for the U.S. Tennis Association. "But there's no solid scientific evidence that this tape helps."

Crafted from cotton and medical grade adhesive, Kinesio is more flexible than traditional tape. And when strategically strewn along injured muscles, its gentle tug promotes circulation to help clear out damage, according to its maker.

"No one's claiming this is a cure," said Michael Good, international director for the Albuquerque, N.M.-based company. "It's an adjunct therapy."

But a slew of studies that failed to find bona fide benefits have some experts skeptical.

"It might have some small role in the rehab process," said Dr. Dennis Cardone, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. "But without evidence, we can't say it's doing anything near what the company claims or what athletes using it say they feel."

The effort to tease out the tape's true benefits is complicated by the placebo effect.

"If an athlete's convinced the tape is helping and looks cool, it can certainly boost their confidence," Cardone said.

And look cool, it does. From bands of beige to fans of fuchsia, Kinesio is leaving its mark on multiple events. As a result, traffic to the product's website is up 1,000 percent since the start of the games, according to Good.

The waterproof tape, designed to stick for up to five days, sells for $6 a strip or $13 a roll. But buying it is only half the battle.

"If you don't know the proper taping technique, you're not going to get the results you want," said Good, adding that more than 100,000 athletic trainers worldwide have taken the paid Kinesio Taping course, about 10,000 last year in the United States alone. "The tape is just a tool."

Although it has been around for 25 years, Kinesio got its break at the Beijing Summer Games after U.S. beach volleyball gold-medalist Kerri Walsh wore it in bright blue on her shoulder.

"That's why it's popular," said Dr. Andrew Gregory, a sports medicine doctor and team physician at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "Not because there's good science behind it."

But Gregory agrees that Kinesio might give some athletes a psychological edge.

"And in a setting like the Olympics, any edge is a good thing," he said.

While the science so far comes up short, company spokesman Good said Kinesio's elite following speaks for itself.

"These are not random athletes getting taped," Good said. "The trainers using it at the Olympics are probably the best in their country, using it on best athletes in the world."

But in the age of evidence-based medicine, Good acknowledges the need for placebo-controlled trials.

"We encourage the research," he said. "We just need to put bigger studies together."

Bigger studies, Good added, mean international collaboration. So the company hosts an annual research symposium to bring Kinesio researchers together. This year's event is in Dusseldorf, Germany.

In the meantime, experts see little risk in using Kinesio, even if its benefits remain unproved.

"If the athlete likes it and it's not too expensive," Vanderbilt team physician Gregory said, "then what's the harm?"

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