Athletes must be falling apart because, suddenly, everyone from Novak Djokovic to Mario Balotelli is taped up. Are these elaborate weaves of coloured "Kinesio tape" a genuine leap forward in the treatment of sports injuries? Or is the tape, ubiquitous at the Olympics, the new Kabbalah bracelet?
The strong, elasticated Kinesio Tex 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 worn elastic therapeutic tape and a confusing array of brands have proliferated: RockTape, PerformTex, SpiderTech, KT Tape. In Britain, 4000 healthcare professionals have attended Kinesio taping training courses and pre-cut strips are sold in Boots.
"It's absolutely bloody brilliant," said physiotherapist Paul Hobrough, who uses several brands to help runners. Tape has been used to patch up injuries for years, but Hobrough said he found Kinesio tape better than old-fashioned zinc oxide tape, which prevented all movement.
A common problem for runners is a mistracking kneecap. Kinesio tape can stretch and contract, inhibiting damaging movements and allowing the right kind, Hobrough said. 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 about the perception that it is a panacea.
"People have become so evangelical [about it]. I don't believe this will repair your problems," he said. It is a rehab tool, not rehab.
Speaking from Japan, Kase said that space, flow and cooling were his basic concepts. He said he believed the source of many joint and muscle pains lay in the thin layer of skin between the epidermis and the dermis and conventional therapies compressed these areas.
"I needed to create something to lift these layers," he said. The tape opens the space between the epidermis and dermis, enabling a better flow of blood and lymphatic fluids. Because of the 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," said 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 said if the tape encouraged people to exercise while injured, it could be dangerous.
Kevin Anderson, who established Kinesio Taping UK to distribute Kase's tape and provide training courses for health professionals, was also cautious not to overstate its therapeutic effects. "There's nothing magic about the tape," he said, adding that it did not improve muscle strength or performance.
Drawing on his previous job experience with the Britain's National Health Service's prescription services, Anderson said "we're very good at prescribing drugs". He discovered that the tape was being used to treat lymphoedema patients. Unlike standard compression techniques, the tape appeared to mimic manual lymphatic drainage, a specialist massage that reduces serious swelling.
Anderson said drugs were rigorously tested to ensure they were effective and safe before they were licensed, but manual devices were not. He said the science on Kinesio tape was lagging 10 years behind the practice.
A randomised double-blind clinical trial in 2008 found that 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 that 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" that Kinesio tape was better than other types of elastic taping, although it might have "a small beneficial role in improving strength" and the "range of motion".
Brewer said that the most significant effect was 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," Brewer said. "Whether there will still be plenty of it in five years' time, I don't know."
A fad? "If Kinesio tape is only for fashion, I don't think fashion would continue over 30 years," Kase said. "Kinesio taping did not start for athletes; it started with treating patients." – © Guardian News & Media 2012