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How Does Kinesiology Tape Work? Physical Therapists Explain Why It’s an Athlete Favorite

Kells McPhillips

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Graphics: Well+Good Creative

While training for the New York City marathon last year, I spent miles and miles silently praying to the recovery gods: Please, oh please, bless me with a Band-Aid capable of patching up the aches and pains in my body! Alas, I now know that no such bandage exists, but there is kinesiology tape (“KT tape” for short). According to Cameron Yuen, DPT, a doctor of physical therapy at Bespoke Treatments in New York City, the stuff can keep you moving through the achiest seasons of your chosen sport, but just how does kinesiology tape work?

“Kinesiology tape is a type of elastic tape that is applied to an area of musculoskeletal dysfunction,” says Dr. Yuen. “Think strains, sprains, or swollen joints. This tape encourages movement and awareness, as opposed to athletic tape, which is used to brace and prevent movement.” Essentially, it puts a check on your form so that you can keep moving the way that you love to—running, dancing, skiing, whatever—within patterns that are sustainable for your body.

With time, that means you’ll be able to take off the tape to find that your body has created better postures. “The most current research suggests that it is most important as a sensory feedback tool,” says Dr. Yuen. “The tape helps gate some of the pain you are experiencing by providing a different sensory input.” You apply the tape tautly when your muscles aren’t fully extended so that when you straighten that muscle, the tape creates tension. If you were taping your quads, for instance, you would pull the tape tight and bend your knee before application.

Athletes (for whom KT tape is as much a staple as, say, bobby pins or socks) usually have trainers, physical therapists, or sports medicine doctors apply their wrappings. And certainly, if you have access to one of these experts, it’s best to have them give you a rundown to make sure you’re wrapped up properly. “Kinesiology tape is generally very safe, but should be avoided if you have an open wound, infection that needs monitoring, or if you are allergic to the adhesive,” says Dr. Yuen.

In most cases, the angles required to apply KT tape to your body will also necessitate another human being to mummify you. (It would be hard to wrap up your own hamstring, for example.) To get you started, though, I asked Dr. Yuen to break down seven ways to use kinesiology tape that are “generally safe,” whether you’re dealing with low back pain, shoulder discomfort, pain in your Achilles, or some other mover’s plight.

7 ways to use kinesiology tap

1. Achilles tendon pain

The Achilles tendon is located on your… heel. (shout out: Greek mythology) To give it the KT tape treatment, “place your calf in a flexed position. Anchor one end with no stretch at the heel. Stretch the tape to 75 percent stretch, and run it vertically up the Achilles towards the calf. Anchor the other end with no stretch,” says Dr. Yuen.

2. Patellar pain

Whether you’re a runner, or someone experiencing knee pain from another sport, Dr. Yuen says kinesiology tape can be useful before you get moving. “Bend your knee to about 90 degrees. Cut two strips of equal length. Anchor one strip at the bony point just below your knee. With 75 percent stretch, wrap the tape around the patella until you reach the quadriceps muscle and anchor without stretch. Use the other strip around the other side of the patella,” says Dr. Yuen.

3. Quadriceps strain

“Bend your knee to about 90 degrees. Anchor one strip just above the knee. With 75 percent stretch, lay the tape down following the muscle fibers of the quadriceps. Anchor the end with no stretch near the top of your quadriceps,” says Dr. Yuen. In the video above, you’ll see that you can apply two strips of tape instead of one for extra tension.

4. Hamstring strain

Applying kinesiology tape to your hamstring is similar to applying it to your quad, in that you’ll usually want two stripes sloping across the muscle group. “Straighten the knee and flex the hip slightly. Have someone anchor the tape with no stretch at the back of the knee,” says Dr. Yuen. “With 75 percent stretch, lay the tape down following the muscle fibers of the hamstring. Anchor with no stretch towards the top of the hamstring.”

5. Low back pain

Low back pain is one of those cases when you’ll probably need someone else to apply the stuff (unless you’re some kind of contortionist). “Cut two strips of equal length. Position yourself in child’s pose with your back rounded. Anchor the strip just above your pelvis to the side of the spine along the muscle. Follow the muscle fibers up the back with 75 percent stretch. Anchor the strip with no stretch. Repeat along the spinal erectors on the other side of your low back,” says Dr. Yuen.

6. Shoulder pain

If shoulder bag-back has got you down, Dr. Yuen has a quick solution to make it feel a bit better. “Place your hand behind your back as if you were scratching your lower back. Anchor one strip near the bony edge at the top side of your shoulder. With 75 percent stretch, place the tape along the front of your shoulder following the outline of your deltoid. Anchor the other strip at the bottom of your deltoid with no stretch,” he says.

7. Medial elbow pain

Colloquially known as “golfer’s elbow,” this injury is also common to those of us chained to our desks. For some relief, “bend your elbow to about 90 degrees. Anchor the strip along the medial (inside edge) of your forearm. With about 75 percent stretch, pull the tape up along the medial bony part of your elbow towards your bicep. Anchor the tape with no stretch,” says Dr. Yuen.

Stretching keeps injury away, too. Start with this:

Meet the Nike shoe that reduced injuries in athletes by over 50 percent. And if you have trouble with your IT band, these are the exercises to do to keep injury away

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