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Athletes must be falling apart because, suddenly, everyone from Novak Djokovic to Mario Balotelli is taped up. Are these elaborate weaves of coloured "Kinesiology tape" a genuine leap forward in the treatment of sports injuries? Or is the tape, destined to be ubiquitous at the Olympics, the new Kabbalah bracelet?
Kinesiology sports tape, a strong elasticated tape, was developed more than 30 years ago by a Japanese chiropractor, Dr Kenzo Kase. He found that the application of the tape replicated some of the beneficial effects of manual therapy – such as massage – in reducing pain and soreness for injured patients.
First seen on Sumo wrestlers, the tape took off when rolls were donated to 58 countries at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Sportsmen and women from Lance Armstrong to Serena Williams have sported various types of elastic therapeutic tape, and a confusing array of brands have proliferated: SpiderTech, Hanmedic Tape, Jousport tape. In Britain, 4,000 healthcare professionals have attended Kinesiology taping training courses, and pre-cut strips are sold in Boots.
"It's absolutely bloody brilliant," says physiotherapist Paul Hobrough, who uses a variety of brands to help runners. Tape has been used to patch up injuries for years, but Hobrough finds Kinesiology tape better than old-fashioned zinc, which prevents all movement. A common problem for runners is a mistracking kneecap; Kinesiology tape can stretch and contract, inhibiting damaging movements but allowing the right kind, explains Hobrough. Runners can continue to train even when they have a problem. "Where we used to say, 'You can't run until I see you next week,' we are now applying the tape and keeping people running between sessions."
Hobrough is cautious about people attempting to apply the tape themselves and the perception that it is a panacea. "People have become so evangelical. I don't believe this will repair your problems." It is a rehab tool, not rehab, he says.
Speaking from Japan, Kase has a more expansive view of his tape's benefits. Space, flow and cooling are, he explains, his basic concepts. He believes the source of many joint and muscle pains lies in the thin layer of skin between the epidermis and the dermis. Conventional therapies compress these areas. "I needed to create something to lift these layers." The tape, he claims, opens the space between the epidermis and dermis, enabling a better flow of blood and lymphatic fluids. Through this flow, the body loses excessive heat that can damage it.
Academics are sceptical about this theory, which is unproven in mainstream science. "We need to be very cautious about the extent of the claims," says John Brewer, a professor of sport at the University of Bedfordshire. "Some perhaps aren't yet supported by science and I am struggling to see where the science is going to come from. Many of the muscles involved in exercise are deep muscles. Placing strips of tape on the skin is going to have little effect on supporting these muscles within the body. We need osteopaths and physios to do proper, peer-reviewed studies to show it really does work."
Brewer also points out that it might be dangerous if the tape encourages people to exercise while injured.
Kevin Anderson, who established Kinesiology Taping UK to distribute Kase's tape and provide training courses for health professionals, is anxious not to over-hype it. "There's nothing magic about the tape," he says. It does not improve muscle strength or performance, but his Newcastle-based company has worked with the Football Association (England's physio Gary Lewin uses it), the Ministry of Defence and the Chartered Institute of Physiotherapists. In his previous job with the NHS Prescription Services, Anderson saw that "we're very good at prescribing drugs". Then he discovered how the tape was being used to treat lymphoedema patients. In contrast to standard compression techniques, the tape is said to mimic manual lymphatic drainage, a specialist massage that reduces serious swelling.
Drugs are rigorously tested to ensure they are effective and safe before they are licensed. Manual devices don't have to be and so, explains Anderson, the science on Kinesio tape lags 10 years behind the practice. There has been research but, he concedes, most is not yet the gold standard of randomised controlled trials.
A randomised double-blind clinical trial in 2008 found Kinesio tape produced an immediate improvement in range of motion when treating shoulder pain, compared with a sham tape. A study of whiplash patients found Kinesio tape provided pain relief and an improved range of motion, which continued a day later, but warned that the changes "may not be clinically meaningful". This year a meta-analysis concluded "there was little quality evidence" to support the use of Kinesio tape over other types of elastic taping, although it may have "a small beneficial role in improving strength" and the "range of motion in certain injured cohorts".
For Brewer, the most significant effect is psychological. "If it makes athletes feel better supported, better prepared, that's fine. It does no harm, unless you're reasonably hirsute like I am – in which case, peeling it off might be quite painful."
"I'm sure we'll see it at the Olympics," adds Brewer. "Whether there will still be plenty of it in five years' time, I don't know." What does Kase say to claims that his tape is a fad? "If Kinesio tape is only for fashion, I don't think fashion would continue over 30 years," he says. "Kinesiology taping did not start for athletes – it started with treat patients."
----------------By Patrick Barkham