You’ve probably seen athletes during professional sports games or at the Olympics wearing strips of black or brightly colored tape on their bodies. It looks cool, but what’s the point of it? And is it possible that people with arthritis could benefit from the same tape that pro athletes use? The answer may be yes.
Called kinesiology tape, this flexible, sticky material may “help reduce the perception of pain, joint stiffness and improve physical function,” says Kristina Marie Quirolgico, MD, a physiatrist at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City. Although the science behind kinesiology tape is not that strong, we spoke to rheumatologists, an occupational therapist, and a physical therapist who all support its use — as does the American College of Rheumatology, who listed it as a “conditional” recommendation in its latest guidelines for osteoathritis.
When we asked CreakyJoints members on Facebook about their experiences using kinesiology tape, we heard varying opinions.
“I tape my thumb most days — without the tape I can’t do much; with the tape I can do almost anything, including lifting my grandson. It’s amazing what a difference it makes,” Debbie R. shared. Laurie T. agrees: “I have used it and it helped immensely with my pain in my knees. It helped as soon as I started putting it on. I felt the difference immediately.”
But Diana M. reported that kinesiology tape “took the edge off for a little while but eventually stopped working for me.”
Let’s look at what exactly kinesiology tape is, how it purportedly works, and how you can apply it yourself at home ideally under the guidance of a physical therapist. Especially during a time when most of us are staying home because of coronavirus quarantine, it’s a remedy that may be easy to try with few risks.
What Is Kinesiology Tape, and How Does It Work?
In the 1970s, Kenzo Kase, a chiropractor and acupuncturist working in the U.S. and Japan, developed this specialized “Kinesio Tape” (his trademark) with a texture and elasticity similar to that of human skin.
“The idea behind Kinesio taping is to facilitate the body’s healing process while supporting and stabilizing muscles and joints without restricting the body’s range of motion,” says Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, MD, a rheumatologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.
But unlike regular athletic tape or ACE bandages, it is not just a brace. Kinesiotape helps to support the muscle and soft tissue around affected joints by providing “light stabilization and additional sensory feedback for neuromuscular retraining,” says occupational therapist Carole Dodge, OTRL, a certified hand therapist at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
In other words, it may help your brain remember how to use your muscles correctly after compensating for painful or damaged joints. Dodge often uses the tape with patients who no longer need a hand brace or splint. “It is less restricting and allows normalization of hand patterns with the activities of daily living,” she says.
Hadiya Green Guerrero, PT, DPT, the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) senior practice specialist and a board-certified clinical specialist in sports physical therapy, uses it similarly in her osteoarthritis (OA) patients.
“Say a therapist has noticed that a patient has weakness in their quads — not just arthritis in the knee, but because of the arthritis, they have changed the way they walk,” she says. “The tape can be placed in a pattern and tension along the quadricep muscle to give that muscle input to fire [help it get ready to activate]. We’re not going to change the arthritis, but we can help the person continue to move as close to the same pattern as they were before they started having that discomfort or pain.”
Yet, “the mechanism of how kinesiology tape works is still speculative,” Dr. Quirolgico says. “Currently it is hypothesized that it helps with neuromuscular control by serving as a reminder for how the joint should move. The elasticity of the tape and its tension on the skin helps mobilize the skin and improve circulation, which then helps with pain.”
It also may work to reduce inflammation in inflammatory types of arthritis by gently pulling up the skin to create space underneath, Guerrero says. “The tape is placed in a way that there’s a high-to-low tension across the band of the tape that lifts the skin, so it creates space [underneath] that allows a passageway for the fluid that’s collected,” she says.
Although most often used for knee or hand osteoarthritis (Dr. Quirolgico also mentions osteoarthritis of the shoulder or ankle), Guerrero says kinesiology tape can be used anywhere on the body, and for inflammatory arthritis as well.
How Do You Place Kinesiology Tape?
Physical therapists like Guerrero are trained and certified in how to apply the tape, and the application pattern depends on exactly what you’re trying to accomplish for your individual case.
Guerrero says Kinesio tape can be used to facilitate or to inhibit motion. For example, if someone has arthritis in their neck and is experiencing tension and headaches, “we can tape the upper trapezius [upper back] muscle in a pattern that is opposite the direction it usually contracts,” she says.
The techniques may seem a bit complicated, but Guerrero says it is possible for your physical therapist or occupational therapist to instruct you how to put it on at home. You could connect with your therapist over video conference or a virtual therapy session to have them show you their preferred ways to apply it. Of course, if you can’t easily reach the area, you’ll have to have someone else in your household be instructed.
If you’re not in contact with your physical therapist right now but want to try kinesiology tape anyway, Dr. Lo says it’s OK to research online.
“As with most things these days, there are ways to learn to apply Kinesio taping on your own,” she says. You can check out the Kinesio website or look up videos on YouTube. But if at all possible, “try to [virtually] see a provider, who can apply their knowledge and training to find a strategy of Kinesio taping that is most beneficial to a given individual,” she says. “If this is beneficial, that provider can teach the individual how to apply the tape on their own.”
Although it’s best to get the advice of a professional for your situation, “the tape is it is very forgiving, and by that I mean if you don’t apply it perfectly, it usually can still help,” Guerrero says. Kinesiology tape is available over the counter and pre-cut, which also makes it easier to apply.
When Do You Use Kinesiology Tape — and When Shouldn’t You Use It?
For people with arthritis, “kinesiology tape is used typically for painful, swollen, arthritic joints to provide pain control,” Dr. Quirolgico says.
The tape can stay on for several days at a time when you’re having pain, inflammation, a flare, or some other situation that you need to address. “It is usually recommended to wear it three to five days,” Guerrero says. “It’s kind of like you take your therapist’s hands home with you. During a session, I could massage you, but then you’re going to go back into the world and probably get swollen again. But the tape keeps working on you and you get to keep receiving the effects.”
There is also no known harm to wearing it preemptively, she says.
Sophie R. told us on Facebook, though, that if she leaves the tape on for more than 24 hours, she experiences stiffness, so you may need to see what works best for you.
When not to use kinesiology tape is really more about potential skin issues.
“Do not apply Kinesio tape on fragile or broken skin, rashes, or if the patient has allergy to tape or adhesive,” Dr. Quirolgico says.
The tape can be a bit hard to remove. “I rub some lotion over top of the tape and let it soak in for about a half hour,” Stef S. told us on Facebook. “Depending on the contents of the lotion or oil, it may release the adhesive in more or less time.”
What Does Research Say About Kinesiology Tape?
“In the recently published management of OA guidelines from the American College of Rheumatology, Kinesio taping is conditionally recommended for knee and CMC [hand] OA based on a handful of studies that are relatively small and that use different methods of taping, but that generally show positive or no benefit,” Dr. Lo says. “Therefore, the impression is that this is probably helpful.”
But because no two studies of kinesiology tape used the exact same method of taping, Dr. Lo says, it’s hard to recommend any particular taping technique. This also makes it difficult to compare the studies themselves.
“The science is truthfully not great, as application techniques and amount of stretch are not well controlled,” Dodge says. “But the research is consistent about agreeing that it is the sensory input from the tape that is beneficial.”
And as to whether kinesiology tape actually may help the underlying arthritis condition, more research is needed. “The randomized controlled trials looking at this intervention suggest that it might be beneficial for arthritis symptoms,” Dr. Lo says. “There have not been any long-term studies evaluating whether it might slow down the progression of arthritis.”
Guerrero agrees that the research is not very strong but has seen the tape help many of her patients — even though it might be a placebo effect. “They definitely have a positive response, and so whether it’s placebo or actual in the individual, it’s helpful,” she says. “The [potential] benefit outweighs the risks.”
What Brand Should You Use?
There are many brands sold online as well as in stores, including the original Kinesio products. Our experts can’t endorse any particular brands, but Guerrero did say she has her favorites. And the people we heard from on Facebook had their own personal recommendations as well. “I love K-Tape,” Jeannette H. says. “I use it when I am extra swollen on whatever joint is the worst.” Stef S. favors KT Tape Pro; Michelle R. loves KT Tape. “Rock Tape is the best,” Jan M. says.
You may have to try out a couple to see what works best for you; as well, your PT or OT may also have a preference. You may want to choose one that’s available in different skin tones, such as K-Tape My Skin.
Especially right now, arthritis home remedies that you can perform yourself that have little risk may be worth trying. Kinesiology tape may help you have less pain and inflammation, which could make it easier to do household chores or take walks around the neighborhood. If you’re in touch with your PT, OT, or rheumatologist, check in to see if kinesiology tape may be right for you.
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