The London Games are full of surprises: the queen’s grand entrance with 007, Japan’s victory over China in women’s volleyball, and what about those colorful strips of tape arranged in strange, hieroglyphic patterns on so many athletes’ bodies? Do they represent a new, cutting edge medical technology that boosts athletic performance by a minuscule but possibly critical margin, or are they just the latest fad in the sports world because magnetic bracelets are so 2008? While it’s clear that many athletes think the tape offers benefits, a scientific review of the data concludes otherwise.
Dr. Kenzo Kase, a Japanese chiropractor and acupuncturist invented the athletic tape in the early ’70s. His elastic, 100 percent cotton strips, called Kinesio tape, were meant to be an alternative to standard athletic taping techniques which provides support for muscles and joints but also restricts motion. Because the tape adds tension to the skin’s surface but isn’t wrapped tight all the way around, the logic goes, the Kinesio tape confers the benefits to taping – supporting injured muscles and joints – and instead of restricting the range of motion, it increases it. And by lifting the skin it relieves pain through improved blood and lymph flow.
This isn’t the first time the Kinesio tape has seen Olympic action. It was first used in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul by a precious few, but really began to catch on in the 2008 Beijing Games, helped handsomely after Kinesio USA donated 50,000 rolls of the tape to 58 countries competing in the games. Four years later it seems as though Kinesio tape is so ubiquitous (especially if you’re a beach volleyball fan, and who isn’t?) that if you’re not K-taping, you’re not giving it your all. Some athletes aren’t even waiting for an excuse to go to one of the more than 4,000 practitioners in Britain now trained in the art of Kinesio taping. Injury free, many tape up just to get that little extra. The difference between gold and silver is often just a few hundredths of a second, after all.
But does Kinesio taping really make a difference? While athletes seem to think so, scientific consensus resoundingly disagrees. In a review published this past February, scientists analyzed ten studies that assessed the effects of Kinesio tape on athlete injuries and on healthy people. The effect on pain relief, they found, was “trivial.” They did observe small beneficial results to range of motion in two studies, and some beneficial effects to strength, but while they saw effects to muscle activity, “it was unclear whether these changes were beneficial or harmful.” In conclusion, the authors found “very little quality evidence to support the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries.”
The tape-giving medicine men are of course sticking to their customary – and lucrative – ways. To become Kinesio taping certified requires taking a training course run by Kinesio Taping Association International, an organization that Kase started with an annual membership fee of $99 to $199. One US distributor, Patterson Medical, located in Bolingbrook, Illinois, charges $61.95 for a box of 50 Kinesio pre-cut fans, each of which has five cutaway strips. As Kevin Anderson, managing director of Kinesio UK, Britain’s source for the tape and application training, told Reuters, “There’s a lot more needed on the research side to confirm the positive results we’re seeing so far.”
Didn’t Hwang Woo-suk say the same about his stem cell research?
My scientific side cringes at the possibility of yet another pseudoscience gaining a foothold in mainstream culture. Unfortunately, intellectual norms make it all too easy for something like Kinesio tape to decorate the likes of Kerri Walsh, and the thousands of girls who want to be just like her.
Predating Kinesio tape, athletes and other health-minded people continue to don magnetic therapy bracelets to deal with aches and pains. Although we certainly don’t preserve the belief of the ancients that the ‘mysterious motivation’ of certain rocks meant they possessed life energies that can heal and bolster our own life energies, wishful thinking remains a powerful befuddling human impulse. How else could we explain the survival of magnetic therapies despite continual scientific debunking since the 1600s that in modern times show static magnetic fields to have no demonstrable effect on blood flow or living tissue? In 2007, after performing a meta-analysis of 29 randomized trials, the authors concluded that “The evidence does not support the use of static magnets for pain relief.” The study undoubtedly had no impact on 2006 magnetic bracelet sales which were an estimated $300 million in the United States and over a billion dollars worldwide.
Ritualistic preparation carrying no physical advantage have long since been a tradition among competitors. Hall of Fame hitter Wade Boggs used to eat chicken for dinner, take batting practice precisely at 5:17 every night, and run sprints no sooner or later than 7:17. On his way to winning six NBA titles, Michael Jordan would wear his North Carolina Tarheel trunks beneath his Chicago Bulls trunks. And perhaps the most bizarre of rituals, Ultimate Fighting Challenge champion Lyoto Machida would drink his own urine mornings before a match, believing it to cleanse his body. There’s certainly a fine line between being superstitious, obsessive compulsive, or just plain weird.
But – aside from Machida’s ritual maybe – I can’t fault an athlete for a quirky preparation routine, even if it has no clear physical benefits. Success in sport, as we know, is hugely mental. So if Serena Williams feels the need to bring her shower sandals to the match with her, who are we to argue? And if Kerri Walsh, or Greek judo fighter Ilias Iliadis, or UK runner Dwayne Chambers thinks the Kinesio tape will give them that extra competitive edge, why tell them otherwise? Placebo is just as valuable if, in the end, it boosts performance. But while we wait for scientific evidence to catch up to anecdotal “knowledge,” we should also acknowledge that the biggest edge goes to Kinesio Taping Association International and their spinoffs around the world. Their quirky ritual of handing out 50,000 rolls in Beijing worked wonderfully as a marketing ploy, and has made them clear winners.