Does That Colorful Tape Olympians Wear Even Work?

Kinesio tape has caught the eye of many an Olympic viewer the last two weeks — covering the muscles of volleyball players, javelin throwers, even swimmers. It was invented decades ago by a Japanese chiropractor. Athletes say it eases muscle strain and allows healing, but research has yet to prove the effectiveness of the tape. Melissa Block talks with Amy Powell, a sports medicine doctor at the University of Utah about the tape.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Maybe you've noticed the technicolor stripes on some Olympic athletes' skin - a fan of blue tape on a stomach, a big streak of red on a lower back, an elaborate criss-cross of black ribbons stretching from shoulder to wrist. Well, 6if you're curious about what those adhesive stripes are, we are too. And we've called Dr. Amy Powell to help us out. She's a sports medicine doctor at the University of Utah. Welcome to the program.

DR. AMY POWELL: Thank you.

BLOCK: We're talking with what's called Kinesio tape. What exactly is Kinesio tape?

POWELL: It's an elastic tape that's designed to stretch with the body as opposed to a non-elastic tape, which might provide a little bit different structural feedback. So it's a stretchy tape that obviously comes in a million different colors that some athletes think improves the function of their muscles.

BLOCK: And how would that happen? What is it supposed to do?

POWELL: Well, it's supposed to decrease pain, increase joint stability. The actual mechanism of how it might work is not really well understood. Some people think that you activate some receptors under the skin, which improve blood flow and improve lymphatic flow that might allow the muscles to function a little bit better, but we don't really know.

BLOCK: Yeah. You say, how it might work. It sounds like you have some doubts.

POWELL: Well, I think there haven't been very many studies on this, in general, and the studies that have been done have been mixed.

BLOCK: Why all these intricate patterns that we're seeing? What's going on there?

POWELL: It's - stripes I think is a good description. So I think that the physical therapists and the athletic trainers that are applying the tape to the athletes are trying to get muscles to fire better, to make the athletes feel like their muscles are supported better by putting these on in these different patterns. And I imagine that it's not the first time that the athlete has tried this and that they have developed these very specific patterns based on trial and error.

BLOCK: Do you think you have to really know what you're doing to put it on in the right way?

POWELL: There are training programs run through the company that makes Kinesio tape that - I don't know if it's a certification program, but it trains therapists to know how to apply it properly.

BLOCK: And the original tape, I gather, was invented by a Japanese chiropractor and acupuncturist, goes back all the way to the '70s.

POWELL: Yeah. And the theories, again, are not really scientifically proven, but certainly a lot of athletes like this.

BLOCK: Are we seeing more of it in this Olympics or are we just noticing it more for some reason?

POWELL: I think we're seeing it more. What do you think?

BLOCK: I think we are.

POWELL: Yeah. To me, it looks like there are more athletes decorated with more stripes this year than in previous years.

BLOCK: Why do you think that is?

POWELL: Well, I think any athlete that is looking for a performance edge will do anything that they perceive as something that might give them a performance edge, whether it's scientific or not. And there are anecdotal reports of people feeling great when Kinesio tape is applied and, if it makes you feel great, even if it's a placebo, you're going to do it to try to get the edge that's going to get you a gold versus a bronze or a bronze versus nothing.

BLOCK: And are there people who say it is just that? Just a placebo, makes athletes feel better, but it doesn't actually work?

POWELL: Yes and no. I think that some of the science that we have suggests that there might be certain clinical conditions where it's really beneficial, truly beneficial. There was one small study that showed that healthy people with shoulder pain had improvement in their shoulder range of motion after applying Kinesio tape compared to a group that got a sham application of this.

And any improvement in range of motion is going to aid recovery from a shoulder problem in physical therapy. It allows the therapists to do their jobs a little bit better. So I think there is a lot of anecdotal information about some clinical conditions, but others, there may be some benefit.

BLOCK: I'm curious, Dr. Powell, as you've watched the Olympics, if there's one athlete whose tape you particularly admired.

POWELL: You know, actually, the one with the blue stripes all the way down the belly.

BLOCK: Oh, yeah. The beach volleyball player.

POWELL: Yeah. Beach volleyball. And then there's the other beach volleyball player that has three pink stripes on her butt. I don't know what they're trying to do, but those are pretty impressive.

BLOCK: Well, Dr. Powell, thanks for talking with us today about Kinesio tape at the Olympics. Appreciate it.

POWELL: Sure. No problem.

BLOCK: That's Dr. Amy Powell. She's a sports medicine doctor at the University of Utah.

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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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