Sports fans and spectators would be hard-pressed to find an athlete on the court or in the field not sporting a swath of kinesiology tape. But unless you've expressly paid a visit to a physical therapist for rehab or an injury, kinesiology tape is likely something that you haven't considered in managing body pain. The product, which is exactly what it sounds like — a topical tape applied to your skin in areas that are injured or experiencing inflammation — is used to mitigate body pain by experts who swear by it. It's very sticky and resistant to sweat, water and lots of intense, rapid movement, standing up to its own test in rigorous sports.
Physical therapists and sports medicine professionals all turn to kinesiology tape for different reasons, applying the elastic tape to problem areas to better improve a joint's motion or function. It may also be used to handle scar tissue recovery, posture issues and improve what's known as proprioception, a link between your nervous system and invisible perception of your body, explains Eni Kadar, PT, DPT, a licensed orthopedic physical therapist who regularly turns to an array of body tape in clinical treatment. More commonly, though, kinesiology tape can work to increase blood flow to an area of your choosing.
More research is needed to determine how quickly kinesiology tape can speed up recovery from injury. But current data is able to truly substantiate its ability to increase blood flow. This, in turn, can help aid injury recovery and decrease inflammation overall.
A targeted study published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases suggested that kinesiology tape vastly improved blood flow and reduced lymphatic buildup in women who underwent a total knee replacement; it's backed by another 2017 study that found kinesiology tape noticeably lowered the risk for joint irritation on uninjured knees by gently lifting and supporting the skin upon application.
How does kinesiology tape actually work?
While many experts tell patients and the public that kinesiology tape can help relieve pain, shorten injury recovery and reduce inflammation, it's important to understand how they arrive at these benefits (and why they're not exactly backed by science). According to Kadar, the best kinesiology tape works to lift skin away from affected muscles or joints on a microscopic scale that's undetectable to the naked human eye; but the imperceptible shift allows increased blood flow in that area.
"The way I explain it to patients is that [kinesiology tape] desensitizes the injured area to allow more freedom of movement," Kadar adds. "With an injury, your brain can become very sensitive to the perception of pain because it's trying to protect your body. This can lead to limitations in range of motion and slows down progress in therapy."
Tape can help to "turn down the volume," then, on your brain's perception of pain as well, Kadar adds, allowing you to feel more comfortable while moving around (potentially enabling you to also progress through therapy faster as well).
The way in which you flex the affected area before using kinesiology tape may also alter this result, says Theresa Marko, PT, DPT, a board-certified orthopedic physical therapy specialist based in New York City. "The idea is that if you tape the muscle or joint in a stretch position, [tape] is supposed to increase circulation and awareness," she explains. "If you tape the joint in a shortened [relaxed] position, it is supposed to work on pain and muscle activation."
When should I consider using kinesiology tape?
Any kind of chronic pain for a joint or muscle that may be overused daily, as well as posture-related body pain, may be partially managed with kinesiology tape. With a chronic injury that's been causing you pain for weeks or months on end, your nervous system and pain regulators may have become even more sensitive to the area and injury itself, which is why kinesiology tape is paired with other efforts to manage the pain. "The most common body parts I tape are shoulders, knees and lower backs," Kadar tells us.
Surprisingly, tape may be the missing key to achieving relief for foot pain, as both Kadar and Marko use it to mimic the support of a podiatric orthotic. "This helps people get a feel for what proper foot mechanics will feel like before investing in orthotics, or help us take pressure off painful areas of the foot," Kadar says. It can even be used as arch support on the fly, Marko adds.
Posture-related issues may also prompt you to turn to kinesiology tape, but mostly as a way to promote better posture over time and not to treat pain alone. "I'll usually use [tape] on the shoulders or patients' feet; with shoulders, I'll apply the tape with people in a neutral posture," Kadar shares. "Because the tape has a 1-way stretch, when they fall into a 'poor posture,' they'll consciously or subconsciously feel a pull from the tape, a reminder to correct themselves."
Using tape to improve posture isn't a long-term solution, she adds, as you'll need to consciously chip away at correcting your own posture throughout the day, but it can help people if they are "rehabbing" their posture as part of physical therapy.
How to use kinesiology tape at home:
Some injuries are hard to near impossible to wrap on your own (think of your rear thighs and hamstrings, for example), and so you may need to head to a physical therapist to get taped. In any case, having a licensed physical therapist demonstrate firsthand how to apply kinesiology tape can be extremely helpful if you plan to use it for prolonged periods at home.
If you already are aware that your skin is sensitive, you should discuss using the tape with a skincare professional beforehand. Adhesive can be an issue for many pre-existing skin conditions and potentially may lead to irritation or allergic reactions for some.
It's important to buy the right kind of tape for your injury — kinesiology tape on its own isn't expected to further exacerbate an injury or cause increased pain, but a more rigid strapping tape may do so since it's designed to limit movement entirely. Leukotape is a popular example of a strapping tape that works much differently: "It's a little too unforgiving for most applications and is really rough on skin," Kadar explains.
In shopping for kinesiology tape, you may wish to shop for rolls that are pre-cut for ease of use. Marko notes that pre-cut rolls are already rounded at their edges, whereas you'll need to use scissors to round the edges of a strip of tape so it adheres better to your skin.
Here's what you'll need to keep in mind when applying kinesiology tape for the first time:
Make sure your skin is clean and dry before application. Do not tape over broken skin and open cuts or wounds. Some products may instruct you to shorten or remove body hair before applying and may have instructions for how you should prepare the affected area (i.e. using a rubbing alcohol swab).
Read the product's application instructions. While you should mostly handle the tape by the paper-lined back, some products may have special instructions to keep the tape as pliable as possible as you apply it to skin. Many brands publish videos on how to use their products at home as well.
Do not stretch the tape's end pieces. When affixing it to your skin, you should wait to stretch the tape until after you've secured the tape's first end piece, and loosen the stretch when you're attaching the end piece as well. Stretching the entire piece of tape when applying could lead to the tape detaching prematurely.
Pat it dry after exercising or bathing. Since kinesiology tape is designed to stay firmly in place for at least a few days, there's a good chance your tape will get drenched at some point. Sweat or water shouldn't be an issue, but you can prolong the quality of the tape's seal on your skin by patting the edges dry afterwards. "It'll ensure the ends don't roll up," Kadar explains.
Remove tape with care. Go slowly as you peel the tape away from your skin, as ripping it may cause injury to the skin's top layer rather than leaving you more relaxed than before.
Kencf0618, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons