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Taping Your Knee for Stability vs. Pain — What’s the Difference?

Over a lifetime, our knees really take a beating. And for those who regularly take part in running or other high-impact exercises, knee problems can be tough to escape.

One helpful method for these fit folks? Knee taping. While taping your knee won’t magically cure all its issues, it can help with pain, stability, function and swelling when done correctly.

Daniel Casey, MD, a primary care sports medicine specialist at Banner Health Center in Surprise, AZ, explained the best reasons to tape, the difference between taping for stability versus for pain, and the most common mistakes people make when taping.

Why tape your knee?

While knee taping may seem like a fairly new practice, Dr. Casey noted that it’s actually been in medical literature since the 1960s. Knee taping falls into two main categories: pain reduction and increased stability. According to Dr. Casey, these are some common reasons someone might tape their knee:

  • Arthritis in the knee
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome (also known as “runner’s knee”)
  • Medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain
  • Lateral collateral ligament (LCL) sprain

In cases of injury, knee taping can help athletes reduce pain and continue to exercise while their injury heals. It’s important to remember that knee tape isn’t a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Rest can be necessary for many knee injuries to properly heal. Rather than push through the pain, you should make a plan for recovery with your physician.

Taping for pain

For pain reduction, the two main knee taping methods are Mulligan taping and Kinesio taping.

In Mulligan taping, the person applying tape will apply force to the joint that’s in pain. This helps the joint move less painfully. A rigid tape is then placed in line with your joint to help it move pain-free once the person stops applying force to your joint.

Kinesio taping uses a stretchy elastic adhesive that was developed in Japan. This tape lifts the skin to increase the space between blood vessels and cells. This decreases pain, improves soft tissue drainage, and helps tissue move more smoothly over the muscles.

Taping for stability

For increased stability, the two main methods are rigid taping and McConnell taping. Rigid taping, Dr. Casey said, is probably the most common and recognizable method here.

Rigid taping uses tape that is more rigid to hold the joint in place. In this method, an under wrap (also called pre-wrap) is used between tape and skin to prevent irritation. Rigid taping can help the joint sense and respond to movement while limiting excess joint motion.

McConnell taping is meant primarily for patella (kneecap) stability. Dr. Casey said folks with patellofemoral syndrome, aka “runner’s knee,” should consider this method, as it provides helpful pressure in one specific direction and feedback to the patella during movement.

For all of these different types of taping, there are numerous ways the tape can be configured, depending on the specific knee issues and types of exercise being performed. In all instances, consult a licensed sports medicine specialist to learn the proper method for your needs.

Common taping mistakes

According to Dr. Casey, people often make the following mistakes when taping their knee:

  • Using lotions or creams on the skin before applying tape: Makes it harder for the tape to stay in place.
  • Applying rigid medical tape directly to the skin: Rigid tape can be quite painful to remove from the skin. Don’t forget that under wrap/pre-wrap!
  • Taping too tightly: You might do this to get “more bang for your buck,” but it can cause overly limited motion, skin rash or shearing (when your skin is pulled in the opposite direction as the underlying tissue or bone causing soft-tissue or blood vessel damage).
  • Taping the back of the knee: This area has a lot of excess motion, which can keep the tape from working properly. It can also irritate the skin by trapping moisture.

When removing tape that’s directly on your skin, do it slowly. You’ll also want to unroll the tape from the skin — don’t pull/tug/yank it off. There are ways to loosen the adhesive, like soaking the tape with a wet washcloth for 10-15 minutes before removing it. Rubbing alcohol and baby oil can also be effective.

Whatever your knee issues, consulting with a medical professional is a good first step. They may suggest knee taping or other treatments tailored to your specific needs. After all, knee problems can run the gamut (pun intended). If you’re experiencing knee problems, contact your health care provider or find a doctor at bannerhealth.com.

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