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Are there medical benefits to the strips of tape used by many Olympic athletes?

They've been hard to miss at this year's Olympic Games: Strips of brightly colored tape adorning the arms, legs, and torsos of many top athletes. But more than just fashion is driving this trend.

The tape is called Kinesio tape. Many athletes believe it has medical benefits.

The tape was invented by Japanese chiropractor Kenzo Kase in the 1970s. The U.K. web site for Kinesio tape claims it can alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, relax muscles, enhance performance, and help with rehabilitation as well as supporting muscles during a sporting event.

Evidence Lacking

There has not been conclusive scientific or medical evidence to confirm the effectiveness of the tape. A review of evidence from 10 research papers for Kinesio tape to treat and prevent sports injuries was published in the journal Sports Medicine in February.

  • No clinically important results were found to support the tape's use for pain relief.
  • There were inconsistent range-of-motion results.
  • Seven outcomes relating to strength were beneficial.
  • The tape had some substantial effects on muscle activity, but it was not clear whether these changes were beneficial or harmful.

The study concluded there was little quality evidence to support the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping to manage or prevent sports injuries.

Some experts have suggested there may be a placebo effect in using the tape, with athletes believing it will be helpful.

Experts Skeptical

"The jury is still out on the hard and fast science of it," says John Brewer, head of sport and exercise sciences and director of sport at the University of Bedfordshire in the U.K.

He finds it difficult to understand how the tape can help: "When we exercise, it is muscles that are deep down in the body that are as much part of the energy-generating process as muscles near the skin.

"I'm still struggling to come to terms with how tape that is placed on skin can have any real, major effect on performance, other than potentially, a psychological effect."

He says the tape may help as part of an athlete's personal habits in preparation for an event: "The actual putting on of the tape sometimes is almost part of that ritual. It's almost part of their uniform for the sport that they're doing, part of their kit. It makes them feel ready for action."

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