As the 2016 Summer Olympics finished, many of you will remember seeing athletes’ bodies covered in stripes of colorful tape — specifically, something called kinesiology tape or (more commonly) kinesio tape.
But what is it? And why is it there?
Perhaps Paraguayan javelin thrower Leryn Franco had a sore shoulder? REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
There are several different versions of this bright adhesive, which was developed by a Japanese chiropractor in 1979. Currently, KT Tape is the “official kinesiology tape licensee” for Team USA.
Kinesio’s website says their tape “alleviates discomfort and facilitates lymphatic drainage by microscopically lifting the skin.” They say that it can be “applied over muscles to reduce pain and inflammation, relax overused or tired muscles, and support muscles in movement on a 24-hour-a-day basis.”
According to KT Tape’s site, their tape is applied “to provide a lightweight, external support that helps you remain active while recovering from injuries. KT Tape creates neuromuscular feedback (called proprioception) that inhibits (relaxes) or facilitates stronger firing of muscles and tendons.”
Both sites also give long lists of conditions the tape may help, ranging from headaches to sore muscles to shin splints — though there’s limited research to back up those long lists.
Maybe Germany’s Katrin Holtwick got a range of motion increase from this. Maybe. REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo
Does it work?
As we saw during the Olympics, plenty of athletes might occasionally rely on athletic tape for support or to limit certain movement, but is there something special about this kinesio taping?
The thing is, most research hasn’t found significant benefits to using the tape, so it’s difficult to provide an objective answer.
Several reviews of studies that analyzed the clinical use of kinesio taping for people with musculoskeletal conditions found no evidence it helped patients. So it’s probably safe to summarize that for people with chronic conditions that need treatment (not usually Olympic athletes), the tape probably doesn’t do much.
Yet one recent review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine did find that “Kinesio taping is superior to minimal intervention for pain relief.” Other studies have found that the taping may potentially increase range of motion slightly, but there’s not necessarily evidence that one type of tape is better than another.
So, it seems that there could potentially be some small effect for pain or range of motion from Kinesio Tex Tape or KT Tape, but that effect is not a particularly large one.
We’re not sure how Latvia’s Edzus Treimanis face tape helps him on his BMX bike … but if it makes you feel better, go for it buddy. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
And yet, tons of athletes seem to love the stuff. In addition to Olympians, athletes like Lance Armstrong and David Beckham used the adhesive during their careers.
Surprisingly, that choice may be more logical than it seems, even if there’s no actual physical benefit to taping.
If it turns out there really is some slight pain relieving or range of motion increasing effect, it’s easy to see why that would matter to an Olympic athlete. Competitions are won or lost by fractions of a second, and even a .05% performance gain could be the difference between standing on the podium or sitting off to the side.
But even if there’s no performance boost whatsoever from the tape, it could still be worth wearing if an athlete thinks it helps them. Study after study has documented the benefits of the placebo effect. People who think they’ve been given caffeine or morphine feel less fatigue or pain, even if all they’ve ingested is a sugar pill.
And as human and applied physiology professor Steve Harridge told Reuters in 2012, “the fact that athletes think it’s going to do them some good can help in a psychological way.”
And a psychological edge and the confidence that comes with it may be all someone needs to hurl a javelin further than their opponent or to spike that volleyball one final time.