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What The Heck Is That Weird Tape People Wear At The Gym?

Refinery29 logo Refinery29 12/02/2018 Sarah Jacoby
a woman in a red shirt: Refinery29 © Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images. Refinery29

Last night everyone on Twitter was talking about Mirai Nagasu, not just because she landed a triple axel, but because it looked like she had a massive "USA" tattoo running down her inner thigh.

"I like that Mirai Nagasu has a leg tattoo. Really let's you know she's not nearly as prim and proper as her tastefully sequined outfit would have you believe," one viewer tweeted. But according to Nagasu, this was "definitely not a big bold tattoo," and was actually just a piece of kinesio tape.

Once only spotted on the shoulders, legs, and stomachs of Olympic athletes, odd-looking arrangements of body tape are showing up at our gyms more and more. The stuff is called kinesiology tape — "kinesio" tape for short — and it's supposed to improve your athletic performance and be a miracle cure for everything from muscle pain to headaches to carpal tunnel to legit back injuries. But do you really need to pick up a roll?

The main goal of kinesio tape is to provide active folks with a better alternative to traditional athletic tape, which is used to support injured or overused body parts while they heal and reduce the pain they cause. "Most athletic tape (the white stuff) doesn't stretch and stops adhering to skin after about an hour or so after application," explains Smita Rao, PT, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy at NYU Steinhardt, in an email to R29. That's why Kenzo Kase, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, developed kinesio tape to be more durable and mimic the texture of human skin.

Say you're nursing a weak ankle. With normal non-stretchy tape, your ankle will be secured in place to minimize the chances of injury. But kinesio tape may provide the same level of support without locking you down. "The idea is that you’re taping the muscle, but not restricting movement in any way," says Alicia Montalvo, PhD, assistant professor of athletic training at Florida International University.

Figure skater Mirai Nagasu wears the tape on her leg. © Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images Figure skater Mirai Nagasu wears the tape on her leg. And there is evidence to suggest that having kinesio tape applied helps injured athletes heal if their only alternative is nothing — no treatment at all. But the problem is that there really isn't any solid proof that kinesio tape does a better job than the classic white athletic tape. In a 2014 meta-analysis, of which Dr. Montalvo was the lead author, results showed that participants using kinesio tape do report that their pain is decreased — but that reduction may not actually mean all that much in terms of actual healing.

That's why some experts believe the key to the success of kinesio tape may be, at least in part, due to the good ol' placebo effect. It's hard not to feel like a Serious Athlete when you're wearing brightly-colored kinesio tape (it honestly does look pretty badass) — and it's even harder not to feel like it must be doing something, right? Sadly, a study published in 2015 found that, when participants were blindfolded and couldn't tell what kind of tape they were getting, all performed equally well on a weight-training routine — whether or not they actually used kinesio tape.

According to Dr. Montalvo, there's a ton of contradictory research out there, partly because it's surprisingly difficult to come up with a way to compare the kinesio tape's effectiveness with other kinds of tape. "When you’re comparing an application to the skin to another application to the skin, you can’t rule out that any improvements aren’t due to some sort of stimulation of the skin," she says. What researchers really need to be able to account for is the attention participants are getting from their doctors, which, obviously, is much more difficult to do.

But that certainly doesn't mean it's not worth using at all. "Kinesio tape is a great learning tool," Dr. Rao says, "because it creates a window of opportunity for the body to explore a different movement pattern." Plus, it's generally pretty easy to apply it yourself (with the help of a YouTube tutorial), it's not too expensive, and, yes, it stays on for a really long time. So, even if the benefits are limited to a placebo effect, there aren't too many downsides to giving it a shot for your back pain or on the off chance it improves your sports skills.

That said, "you shouldn't use tape alone to solve your problems," Dr. Montalvo advises. For actual pain relief and rehabilitation, you need to also be going to a physical therapist or at least checking in with your doctor. But, once that's covered, feel free to indulge your inner Kerri Walsh Jennings and wear that cool-lookin' tape around the gym as much as you want.

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