While kinesiology tape and other “athletic tapes” have been around for many years, recently they’ve gained a lot of attention as famous athletes have begun using the technique to deal with injuries and to support their training. For example, “star athletes” and Olympians including David Beckham, Lance Armstrong, Serena Williams and Kerri Walsh have all used kinesiology tape and spoke about its benefits to the media.
Athletic tapes, including kinesiology tape, can be used by most people suffering from some type of soft tissue injury, whether it’s a younger athlete dealing with an acute injury affecting a tendon or muscle, or an elderly person trying to manage degenerative joint pain.
The Kinesio Taping™ website states that “It has been proven to have positive physiological effects on the skin, lymphatic and circulatory system, fascia, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints.” (1) Some common injuries that kinesiology tape has been used to help treat include: hamstring pulls in runners, shoulder pains in golfers or tennis players, and back pains experienced by people who perform repetitive motions as part of their job.
What Is Kinesiology Tape?
Kinesiology tape (two common brand names include Kinesio Taping™ and KT Tape™) is a natural “rehabilitative taping technique” that helps to stabilize an injured area of the body, allowing it heal without completely reducing its range of motion. Areas of the body where kinesiology tape is commonly used include the: knees, shoulders, calves, shins, elbows and wrists. The tape can be applied over and around an injured joint, muscle, or tendon to reduce swelling and and prevent further complications.
While sports tapes might be most common among athletes or people who are very active — due to how the tape helps with overcoming muscle or joint injuries that are caused by overuse or intense training — kinesiology tape also has many uses for non-athletes too. For example, older adults who deal with common aches and pains due to aging can utilize the tape to help improve recovery and reduce pain. As the Kinesio Taping™ website puts it, the tape is great “For work, for life, for play.”
Who can benefit from using kinesiology tape ?
- Anyone who has a job requiring repetitive movements, which can cause pain due to inflammation and overuse. This can include construction workers, landscapers, mechanics, miners, etc.
- People who work at a desk and spend many hours hunched over, or those who live a mostly sedentary lifestyle, which can contribute to back or neck pain.
- Athletes, or those who engage in lots of physical activity recreationally just for fun, including runners, cyclists, golfers or playing tennis.
- People who suffer from pains due to getting uncomfortable or poor sleep, such as headaches or back pain.
- Those with joint pains due to arthritis, osteoarthritis or other health conditions.
- And anyone else, whether old or young, who has recently experienced a muscle, tendon or joint injury and has ongoing pain as a result.
How does kinesiology tape work?
Kinesiology tape is not a new concept, but it does have some unique benefits. It was developed by a Japanese chiropractor in the 1970’s named Dr. Kenzo Kase, who was looking for an alternative to traditional, stiffer athletic tapes.
Historically the purpose of using athletic tapes was to treat injuries by immobilizing an area of damaged tissue, such as an achy joint or pulled tendon, while also decreasing range of motion in an effort to prevent additional damage from occurring. While most athletic tapes are only intended to be worn for a brief period of time in order to prevent too much stiffness of the joint, kinesiology tape can be used differently because it doesn’t severely limit circulation.
To simplify the process, kinesiology tape works by lifting the skin slightly away from the underlying tissue, due to adhesion between the skin and tape. This creates a small space between the muscle and the dermis of the skin where fluid can be drained from. (2)
5 Benefits of Kinesiology Tape
1. May Help Reduce Pain Due to Injuries
As Dr. Kase explained in an interview with The Guardian, “Pain sensors are located between the epidermis and the dermis, the first and second layers of your skin, so I thought that if I applied tape to the pain it would lift the epidermis slightly up and make a space between the two layers.” Kinesiology tape even feels similar to human skin in that it’s thin, soft and stretchy. It’s made of very thin elasticized fabric that is usually 100 percent cotton, allowing skin to breathe more easily compared to many other tapes or bands.
Kinesiology tape allows for more movement than traditional tapes and is also less stiff/firm, plus it decreases swelling due to helping with drainage of lymphatic fluid. The tape is made from a unique material that bonds to the skin using body heat. Compared to other tapes, KP is tape is made of a material that is more elastic and flexible, helping it to adhere to the patient’s skin in which it gently “tugs” without causing pain. This helps to stimulate blood flow to the affected area throughout the day or between physical therapy/rehabilitation sessions, therefore helping with healing.
A 2012 study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine that tested the effects of kinesiology tape on wrist pain and strength following medial epicondylitis (ME) injury found that “Forearm [kinesiology tape] may enhance absolute force sense and improve pain condition for both healthy athletes and athletes.” The study did not find that kinesiology tape improved wrist flexor strength for either group however. (3)
2. Doesn’t Severely Restrict Circulation or Range of Motion
Severely restricting an area of damaged tissue can cause swelling and stiffness to become even worse, which is why stretching and physical or osteopathic manipulative therapies help so much in recovery. Kinesiology tape stretches lengthwise but not crosswise, helping it to stay in place and to adhere to the correct area where the muscle or joint injury has occurred.
Compared to other tapes it’s capable of gently stabilizing the injured tissue without cutting off blood supply or feeling very restrictive. After receiving any type of soft tissue manipulation treatment or manual therapy kinesiology tape can help to extend the patient’s benefits. In some cases physical therapists or other therapists who use hands-on manipulations to treat patients may choose to use kinesiology tape with their patients following a session in order to facilitate lymphatic drainage and support healing . Between physical therapy sessions the tape can help to keep pain low by keeping swelling down and allowing for some gentle movement.
A report published by the Sports Performance Research Institute at Auckland University found that “[kinesiology tape] may have a small beneficial role in improving strength, range of motion in certain injured cohorts and force sense error compared with other tapes.” However, the researchers found mixed results using kinesiology tape overall and point out that more controlled studies are still needed to prove its effectiveness. (4)
3. Can Help Reduce Low Back Pain
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that kinesiology taping can be very helpful for decreasing lower back pain when combined with other forms of manipulative therapy, such as physical therapy. Findings suggest that use of kinesiology tape helped patients by “improving range of motion (ROM), muscular endurance and motor control.” (5)
To be fair, not every study has found that kinesiology tape is effective for all patients, especially when used alone, however there’s evidence that it can help reduce other types of back pains as well — such as pain along the spine — when combined with lifestyle habits such as exercise and stretching.
4. May Help Treat Running Injuries
Kinesiology tape may be useful for those who are dealing with running injuries, including:
- Knee pains
- Plantar fasciitis
- Shin splits (aka Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome)
- Runner’s knee (aka Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome)
- Hamstring pulls
- and other types of aches or pains due to overuse or poor form
There’s some evidence that kinesiology tape can help with ankle stabilization and balance, in addition to making physical activity easier for those with osteoarthritis of the knees. One double blind test compared the effects of kinesiology tape and a placebo tape on quadricep torque, standardized stair-climbing tasks (SSCT) and pain in the knees in patients with knee pain due to osteoarthritis. They found that kinesiology tape provided “significant improvements in the peak quadriceps torque (concentric and eccentric at angular velocities of 90 per second and 120 per second), SSCT and pain were obtained in the experimental group when compared to the control group.”
The conclusion of the study was that application of kinesiology tape can be helpful for reducing pain in knee osteoarthritis and improving range of motion. (6) However, it’s also important to point out that not every study has drawn the same conclusion, as some have found mixed effectiveness of taping.
5. May Help With Recovery of Wrist or Shoulder Injuries
Similarly to studies regarding kinesiology tape’s use in patients with back pain, research regarding its effectiveness for treating shoulder injuries has found mixed results. (7) There’s some evidence that kinesiology tape can decrease pain and disability in young patients with shoulder impingement/tendonitis, especially short-term pain.
However, it’s recommended as a adjunct treatment rather than a stand-alone solution for patients with shoulder impingement. One study that included 42 adults who experienced shoulder problems and pain found that use of kinesiology tape helped to decrease their symptoms over the course of several weeks.
Best Ways to Use Kinesiology Tape
You can find kinesiology tape online or for purchase in certain sporting stores. Several different companies now manufacture kinesiology tapes, each of which are slightly different in terms of their fabric, colors and length. The original kinesiology tape comes in a package that is typically three inches wide and ranges from 16–103 feet long (longer lengths are needed to cover bigger parts of the body). You can find kinesiology tape in colors including beige/skin color, black, bright blue, and pinkish-red. Most types will be water-resistant or even waterproof, allowing them to be worn for about 4–5 days at a time. (8)
There are various applications of kinesiology tape that are used depending on the injury being treated. These include the taping applications called:
- “I” application
- “Y” application
- “X” application
- Fan application
- Donut application
- And the web application
It’s important to visit a qualified practitioner who can help access which kinesiology taping method will work best depending on your current condition. Kinesiology tape can be applied in hundreds of ways, due to how various taping methods differ in terms of the utilization of the straps, amount of “stretch” used, shape and direction. It’s recommended that patients first get a clinical evaluation or assessment by a osteopathic practitioner so that the tape will always be applied properly.
Below are some tips regarding best-practices for applying kinesiology tape:
- Apply tape at 30-60 minute before beginning any physical activity or taking a shower.
- Prepare your skin by first cleaning it remove dirt, lotion or excess hair. Tape is applied directly to bare skin.
- Try cutting and rounding the edges of the tape so it doesn’t fray or peel back.
- Before applying the tape properly align and stretch it, but don’t stretch the ends of the tape. The ends should lay flat against your skin and not should not tug at the skin.
- To help activate the adhesive which works by being activated due to body heat, rub your hands over it gently.
Here is an overview of instructions for using kinesiology tape on different parts of the body (for more detailed instructions, visit the Kinesio Taping™ website):
- The “I” application (used all over for muscle aches and swelling around the body; popular for treating lower back pain, shin splints and shoulder pains) — This application is considered the simplest of all kinesiology application techniques and is done by cutting a straight piece of tape that’s several inches shorter than the area you want to cover. Round all four corners of the tape to improve adherence. Apply the tape firmly at one end then stretch it over the affected area. To finish, run your hands over the tape to activate the adhesive.
- The “Y” application (good for sensitive areas of the body including the knees and elbows; also helps treat scars on the skin and relieves swelling) — Create the Y shape by cutting a piece of tape down the middle, splitting it into 2 strips and leaving behind a “base” where the tape hasn’t been cut. The base of the tape should go right above or below the sore area, then pull the two arms of the “Y” and apply them on either side of the muscle.
- The “X” application (best for areas that connect two joints, such as near the elbows, wrists or knees; also used on the back of the legs such as the calves) — Create an X shape by cutting a piece of tape straight down the middle on two sides, leaving an uncut piece in the middle which forms the center of the X. The X shape will be stretched out from the muscle. Apply the middle of the X right over the painful area then pull the arms out and away from the center.
- The “Fan Strip” application (used around the body for reducing swelling and fluid retention) — This is similar to the Y application but has extra strips since the tape is cut several additional times. After measuring the area and cutting your tape to fit the length, try to cut thin, even strips into the tape starting at one end (like you did for the Y). Leave about an inch of tape intact at the end of the strip to form your base. If you make 3 cuts, you will have 4 strips. Apply the uncut base against the affected area then stretch the outside strips so they cover the outside edges of the area.
- The “Donut” application (used on the knees and wrists) — The donut shape is made by cutting tape to leave a hole in the middle. Cut the tape so it’s a bit longer than the affected area. Leave about a one inch piece intact at either end, fold the tape in half and use scissors to cut a slit in the middle of the tape to create your hole. Apply the tape so your knee or elbow sticks between the hole of the donut, then stretch the strips around the joint being taped.
- The “Web” application (used in similar way to the donut) — Start by cutting a piece of tape the same length as the affected area, then fold the tape in half and make even cuts in the middle of the tape to create openings. This is similar to the donut application but has more long slits. Try to leave an inch uncut at either end. Apply the web over the affected area by starting with one end of the tape just above/below the sore area, then pulling the strips to cover the rest of the area.
Precautions Regarding Use of Kinesiology Tape
Although kinesiology tape is a completely natural and overall safe way to help treat injuries, there are certain circumstances in which it’s not appropriate. When certain types of injuries have occurred using athletic tapes may even potentially worsen the existing condition, which is why getting a doctor’s opinion is always a good idea in the case of a sudden injury, or when first using kinesiology tape. If you’re unsure about whether kinesiology taping is a good option for treating an injury you’re dealing with, seek out a therapist or professional who can help and understands what type of treatment is needed to allow you to properly heal.
Kinesiology tape is contraindicated for several health conditions and should not be used if you have any of the following:
- An infection, open wound or sores on your skin.
- Deep vein thrombosis or a known problem with blood clotting.
- Kidney disease or failure.
- Congestive heart failure.
- Cancer or another life-threatening illness without speaking with a doctor first.
Final Thoughts on Kinesiology Tape
- Kinesiology tape is a natural “rehabilitative taping technique” that helps to stabilize an injured area of the body without reducing its range of motion.
- Kinesiology tape is most commonly used to help treat injuries affecting the: wrists, elbows, knees, lower back, calves and ankles. It’s helpful for both athletes and non-athletes dealing with muscle, joint and tendon pain.
- Studies have mixed regarding kinesiology tape’s effectiveness overall, but suggest it can help decrease pain, swelling and stiffness while improving blood flow, range of motion, potentially strength and healing.
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