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Science

Scientists doubt Olympic must-have Kinesio tape

Kinesio tape - used by athletes to provide muscle and joint support - has become a must-have medical aid at London 2012. But some scientists say it's little more than a placebo.

It looks like a plain-old stripe - colorful, but plain, nonetheless. And it's everywhere at the Olympics in London.

Kinesio tape is an adhesive strip used by athletes the world over. It has become the must-have performance enhancer at the Games because it is said to reduce pain and swelling in muscles and joints. Plenty of non-professionals wear Kinesio, too.

It was invented by a Japanese doctor, Kenzo Kase, more than 30 years ago.

Kase says the adhesive tape is designed to provide muscle and joint support without restricting an athlete's movement.

"My method is trying to lift the skin to the right pressure. We can allow for normal circulation and reduce inflammation, and we can resolve the problem [that] causes the pain," Kase says.

Two soccer players on a field, one wearing Kinesio tape

Many athletes believe in the power of Kinesio tape - across the dsiciplines

Judging from the number of athletes wearing the tape, it must work. But that hasn't stopped some scientists questioning its efficacy.

Counter to basic physics

"I fail as a scientist to really understand the mechanism by which it has an effect," says John Brewer, a professor in sports science at Britain's University of Bedfordshire, "especially that it lifts the skin to improve blood flow and to improve the lymph system."

"If you think of basic physics, in order for something to lift the surface there has to be an opposite reaction, and there is no way that sticking tape on the skin can create an opposite reaction or opposite force that would lift the tape upwards," Brewer says.

But Harry Pijnappel, a Netherlands-based instructor in applying the tape, says the skeptics have yet to catch up with the athletic community.

"When we stretch or pull the skin in one direction there [is a] reaction in the body. That way we try to influence the body's own healing processes," Pijnappel says.

Kinesio can be seen on the limbs of countless athletes, gymnasts, platform divers and tennis players - even Novak Djokovic sports the stripe. David Beckham and Lance Armstrong are also firm believers in Kinesio's powers of injury aversion and treatment.

Jochen Wollmert, Germany's table tennis hopeful at this year's London Paralympics, is another top athlete who sticks on the tape.

"As far as I'm aware, there's no real research into whether it actually helps," says Wollmert, "but it seems, at least to me, that it does help. Of course, it's not that it has a healing effect - it only reduces the pain. It doesn't heal injuries."

Its inventor, Kenzo Kase, says he believes the tape does have healing powers, but acknowledges there is no scientific evidence to support the claim. Instead, Kase suggests the fact that so many top level athletes use it, means it must work.

"Athletes, especially Olympic athletes, want to do perfect performance and to be able to do that, they need comfort – and my tape can make comfort," says Kase.

Kinesio tape in the colors of the German flag - black, red and gold

To some, Kinesio tape is a statement - a way to show your colors

The Dutch practitioner Pijnappel, says the tape targets particular zones of the skin and is used for different purposes - the most important one being pain reduction.

"We can lift the skin and get lymph drainage, so we can take a positive influence on swelling," says Pijnappel.

Placebo effect

But the effects of the tape don't go deep enough as many muscle problems are not tackled where they begin, criticizes sports scientist Brewer.

"Many of the muscle groups that are involved in producing powerful, physical movements rest deep beneath the skin," says Brewer, "they're close to the bone, they have tendons and ligaments that join the muscle with the bone, but they're a long way from the surface of the skin. So, again as a scientist, I fail to see what mechanism will result in them improving performance or preventing injury with a tape which is simply stuck on the surface of the skin."

Brewer even goes so far as to suggest that Kinesio's success in treating sports ailments is a case of mind over matter in the fullest sense.

"There are some studies to say that it might be of benefit," says Brewer, "But my own view is that the benefit might be one of a placebo effect that it almost gives the athlete the feeling they have prepared for their sport, it's a little bit like the war paint."

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