LONDON (Reuters) - German beach volleyball player Ilka Semmler wears it on her buttocks - in pink. Swedish handball player Johanna Wiberg prefers it in blue from her knee to her groin. British sprinter Dwain Chambers has even worn it with a Union Jack design.
Athletic tape made in every color under the sun seems to be the latest must-have sports injury treatment at London 2012, where athletes may have been influenced by other big name tape fans such as Serena Williams and David Beckham.
Called Kinesio tape and developed by a Japanese doctor more than 30 years ago, the adhesive strapping is designed to provide muscle and joint support without restricting movement.
According to Kinesio’s product website, it is also designed to be used with a particular taping technique - a skill practitioners need to learn on a special training course.
More than 4,000 people in Britain are now trained in the art of Kinesio taping, it says, and many of them look after some of the country’s top sportsmen and women.
But does it really work?
Compared with the abundance of its use, rigorous scientific research on Kinesio tape is scant. But a handful of research papers suggest its ability to relieve pain or improve muscle strength is limited.
“Kinesio tape may be of some assistance to clinicians in improving pain-free active range of movement immediately after tape application for patients with shoulder pain,” wrote scientists in one study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physiotherapy.
But the researchers added their findings did not support the use of Kinesio tape for decreasing pain intensity or disability in patients with shoulder problems.
In a review of all the scientific research so far, published in the Sports Medicine journal in February, researchers found “little quality evidence to support the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries”.
Kevin Anderson, managing director of Kinesio UK, which supplies the tape in Britain and trains people in how to apply it, says the scientific research has yet to catch up with what athletes and physiotherapists say about the tape’s benefits.
“There’s a lot more needed on the research side to confirm the positive results we’re seeing so far,” he told Reuters.
“There’s nothing magical in the tape, it certainly can’t improve your performance or make you into Superman, but the way people use the tape is to lift the skin, reduce the pressure and that helps relieve pain and swelling.”
Whatever the science, German beach volleyball player Sara Goller sported two long pink strips of the tape on her left leg during matches on Tuesday, while her partner Laura Ludwig had two vertical blue strips on her stomach.
“I don’t really mind the color, it’s more about what it does. It can release or put tension on a muscle, it depends on what you want. Our physio is really good at doing it,” Goller told Reuters.
John Brewer, a professor of sports science at Britain’s University of Bedfordshire, remains doubtful.
“As a scientist, I‘m still not convinced about the underlying mechanisms,” he told Reuters, voicing skepticism about the supposed ‘lifting’ effect and the ability of tape applied to the skin to enhance the performance of muscles deep inside the body.
Steve Harridge, a professor of human and applied physiology at King’s College London, said many athletes appeared to be wearing tape even when they had no injury, possible hoping for some preventative or enhancing effect.
“It may be a fashion accessory, and it may be just one of those fads that come along from time to time, but to my knowledge there’s no firm scientific evidence to suggest it will enhance muscle performance,” he told Reuters.
Both scientists agreed, however, that there may be a benefit, in the form of the placebo effect.
“The fact that athletes think it’s going to do them some good can help in a psychological way,” said Harridge.
An effective placebo, Brewer said, “could make all the difference between success and failure”.
Additional reporting by Ross Chainey, Thomas Pilcher and Nigel Hunt, editing by Mark Trevelyan