Whether at the gym, a race or a physical therapist’s office, you’ve probably seen kinesiology tape before. Usually, it looks like colorful strips of tape placed in patterns over shoulder blades, around knees or along someone’s back. So what is it, and what does it actually do? Here’s what you need to know.
“Kinesiology tape is a special type of elastic therapeutic tape that can be used to treat a wide variety of injuries,” explains Hannah Dove, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and certified kinesio tape practitioner at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California.
It’s super versatile and can be applied in hundreds of different ways and stays on the skin for several days, she adds. “It will even stay on in the water or in the shower.”
Kinesiology tape is also different from regular athletic tape. “It is stretchy in one direction (along the length) and it serves to lift the skin,” notes Erwin Seguia, DPT, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder and owner of Match Fit Performance.
Kinesiology tape is most often used on people with injuries like shin splints and tendonitis, Dove says. It’s also often used to decrease swelling or improve joint support after surgery. Many people also believe it can improve muscle function, joint alignment and posture when applied in certain ways.
As for the best time to apply the tape, it depends on the reason you’re using it. “If there is discomfort with movement, you can apply before exercise,” Seguia says. “If you are looking for some assistance with swelling post-workout or injury, apply after your workout.”
While most people can use kinesiology tape safely, there are some specific situations where it may not be a great idea, according to Seguia. Anyone with decreased sensation because of neuropathy, nerve injury, poor blood circulation or very fragile/sensitive skin should check with a professional before using kinesiology tape.
Kinesiology tape is often used for recovery, to help reduce swelling, assist in scar tissue healing, and to improve sports performance — but exactly how it accomplishes those things is up for debate. “The only thing that is semi-agreed upon is how it reduces swelling: by helping to lift the skin due to the stretch of the tape,” Seguia says. This allows for better circulation to the taped area.
“The reasons it changes and/or affects pain and performance seems to be related to neurological changes,” Seguia notes, but this is not known for certain. Some advocates of kinesiology taping believe it causes physical changes to underlying muscle and tendons, but there’s no strong evidence for this at the moment.
As for how effective kinesiology tape is: We’re not sure. “Anecdotally, many physical therapists and athletic trainers swear that it works,” says Lauren Lobert, DPT, certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of APEX Physical Therapy. Though it has helped countless patients, the research is mixed, she explains. Research supports the idea kinesiology tape helps short-term symptoms, but there is likely no long-term effect.
“In my opinion, it is likely not the ‘fix’ to any problem, but for some, it can be effective in short-term management of musculoskeletal symptoms,” Lobert concludes.
If you’re in the market for kinesiology tape, it’s easy to find at your local sporting goods store or online. Some of the most popular brands include: Kinesio, KT Tape and Rocktape.
Though it’s easy to apply on your own once you know how, experts recommend getting directions specific to your injury or reason for taping beforehand. “I strongly recommend getting a healthcare professional that is trained in this skill to teach you, or at the very least to watch a video specific to taping for your individual condition,” Lobert says. “A pre-packaged kit for knees is not adequate. There are very specific requirements on where to start and end the tape, which direction to pull and how much to pull.”
If you decide to apply it yourself, make sure your skin is clean and dry beforehand. “If you have any dirt or lotion or oils on your skin, the tape will not last very long and will fall off quickly,” Dove says. “If applied correctly, it can stay on for several days.”