Famous athletes, whether professional or amateur, are symbols of talent, skill, hard work, and dedication. During the Olympics, for example, we often marvel at the many years of incredible sacrifice and persistent training that it takes for any athlete to get to the Olympic Games, let alone contend for a medal.
Unfortunately, athletes have also become a symbol for something else - gullibility, superstition, and exploitation. While watching sporting events you are likely to see athletes sporting the latest pseudoscientific device that is meant to give them a performance edge. Even worse - many athletes become paid shills for these bogus devices, using their fame and success to sell snake oil.
Over the years we have seen athletes wearing copper bracelets, those little tabs across the bridge of their nose, and those magical rubber and plastic wrist bands. All useless.
Now the 2012 Summer Olympic Games is bringing to prominence the latest fad in competitive nonsense - so-called Kinesio Tape. Many athletes are decorated with colorful strips of tape arranged in interesting patterns across their muscles.
According to the Kinesio website:
"The Kinesio Taping Method is designed to facilitate the body’s natural healing process while allowing support and stability to muscles and joints without restricting the body’s range of motion. It is used to successfully treat a variety of orthopedic, neuromuscular, neurological and medical conditions. Both Kinesio® Tex Tape and the training protocol have shown results that would have been unheard of using older methods and materials."
Essentionally, strips of elastic tape are placed over muscles that are injured or strained. The tape is meant to support the muscles, improve blood flow, reduce injury, and improve performance. Dr. Kenzo Kase has apparently been developing Kinesio tape since the mid 1970's. So he has had over 30 years to conduct research and convince the medical community that the above claims have merit.
However, there has been very little research into Kinesio taping. The Kinesio website contains a list of research - mostly small pilot studies of dubious design and outcomes, and small case series. There is little well designed research substantiating any of the claims made for this product and technique.
The published literature is likewise scant. A 2012 review of Kinesio tape for the treatment of sports injuries concluded:
"In conclusion, there was little quality evidence to support the use of KT over other types of elastic taping in the management or prevention of sports injuries. KT may have a small beneficial role in improving strength, range of motion in certain injured cohorts and force sense error compared with other tapes, but further studies are needed to confirm these findings."
A recent study of Kinesio taping for healthy subjects found:
"Application of KT to RF, VL and VM muscles did not significantly change lower limb function, postural balance, knee extensor peak torque or electromyographic activity of VL muscle in healthy women."
Bottom line - There is surprisingly little research to show for the last 30 years, and what does exist is preliminary and generally negative. This is typical, however, for dubious products or techniques developed by a "lone genius" who then appears to spend most of their time and effort promoting their product rather than studying it to see if it really works.
Kinesio tape, in my opinion, is also an example of a common feature of pseudoscientific medical devices - they provide some small non-specific benefit that is irrelevant to the specific and elaborate application. In the case of sports injuries, bracing and wrapping the injured limb or joint is often helpful. It can provide support and take some strain off the injured muscle, ligament, or joint. Wrapping may also provide some heat that is helpful for sore or tight muscles.
You will find, therefore, many devices that are essentially braces but with an added and useless component that mainly serves for marketing. Magnets, for example, often come in pads and braces.
In this case the Kinesio taping seems to work as well as a basic Ace bandage. People seem to have been reinventing the bandage over and over again.
Colorful strips adorning athletes are likely to be seen for years to come - until the next useful fad comes along. Articles discussing such devices often conclude by saying that these devices, even if they are physiologically useless, provide a psychological advantage to athletes. Even if it's only the "placebo effect", the belief that they have an edge is enough to improve performance.
This may be true, but I am not really convinced. World-class athletes perform at the upper limit of human ability and are remarkably consistent. A little placebo effect is unlikely to put them on the medal stand.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.
Dr. Novella is an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society and the host and producer of the popular weekly science show, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. He also authors the NeuroLogica Blog.