Every day you see professional athletes sporting the latest in support wear, from knee braces to compression sleeves, or taped up with brightly colored strips. As amateur athletes and weekend warriors, we experience our own set of injuries and limitations that need a little support. The good news is, there are options available.
“Most of the time, if I’m talking with my patients about braces, it’s to help them get through their activity,” says Lee Miller, PT, DPT, OCS, clinic director at KORT in Lexington, Ky.
Taped with Kare
If you’ve watched any sort of sport in the past two years, you’ve probably seen athletes wearing what looks like duct tape across their shoulders or along their knees. It’s not exactly duct tape, but rather kinesiology tape (or “K tape”), which is an elastic sports tape designed to relieve pain, all while supporting the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments.
“Physical therapists use kinesiology tape on patients that might have some weakness in some areas of their body, say, for instance, their shoulder,” says Miller. “If they’re having a hard time with some of the muscles around their shoulder blade causing the neck or the front of the shoulder to overwork, we’ll use the tape to cue the muscles on the back side of the shoulder to do their jobs a little more.”
This is especially helpful for those who sit at a desk in front of a computer all day; Miller sees a lot of rounded shoulders and poor posture become an issue. “We’ve seen it with people who have bad posture, but we’re not taping to put the shoulder back into place. It’s more of a cue to the muscles to work more efficiently.”
Miller is quick to note that using the tape does not do the work of strengthening the muscles that need the help, nor will it give you instant better posture (so, no, it won’t help your equitation scores raise dramatically).
Those with rounded shoulders aren’t thinking about them all day, so those muscles don’t get worked as efficiently as they are designed to. The tape is to help the muscles do their job, so you can work to stay in the proper position or sit in the saddle with more core control and better posture.
Another common location for riders to use kinesiology tape is along the quadriceps.
“People will have pain in their knees from their quads not firing appropriately,” says Miller. “If you’re riding and your glutes and hamstrings are not firing as efficiently as they should, it can mean a painful knee. The tape is just a cue so the muscles take on the work instead of the joints.”
Kinesiology tape can stay on your skin for up to three to four days, and there has not been any research to show that the effectiveness of the tape decreases after a day or two. Miller does warn, however, that if the tape starts to irritate your skin, not to wear it 24 hours a day every day.
It’s important to note that you should not self-diagnose and start using kinesiology tape without first consulting a physical therapist.
“A lot of the generic advice out there is not going to be good enough for everybody,” says Miller. “It’s good enough for a few people, but a professional is always going to be able to take a look at everything going on. One person’s pinched rotator cuff is going to be different than another’s. It all depends on if your body is weak or tight, or what’s going on with the muscles around the area that’s in need of support.”
Kinesiology tape is good for chronic pain and for injuries that are healing, but should not be a permanent staple. A licensed therapist will be able to assess and prescribe exercises to strengthen the muscles and regain movement and control.
Not One Size Fits All
Other means of support, such as compression sleeves, straps, and braces should also be used with consideration by a doctor or physical therapist.
Compression sleeves are used for people who have a little bit of swelling in a certain joint area, like the knee. They are also effective for those who have poor timing of their muscles, because the gentle compression will provide feedback to the joint that it is OK to move in that direction.
Patellar straps are more specific for those who have knee pain driven from the compressed force of the knee cap and the thigh bone. The strap gently pulls the knee cap up and provides the ability to glide differently so there’s less pressure between the knee cap and thigh bone.
Bledsoe Braces are the larger, more complex braces that are more specific for those who have ligament issues. These are used to help prevent tearing a ligament in the knee or elbow because the brace takes the force, not the joint.
Unload braces are the knee braces with metal pieces for those with structural injuries. For someone who has medial-compartment arthritis, this can take some of the pressure off the inside of the knee. These are fitted by a professional.
The bigger braces can be used by western riders, but the slimmer designs might be best for English riders.
Back braces tend to be popular with horseback riders, but Miller cautions that these might do more harm than help.
“From my standpoint, back braces are going to teach your core muscles to be lazier, which is not good for anyone,” he explains. However, he does understand that there can be a need for comfort, which drives the need for wearing a back brace.
“Some people might get a back brace because they cannot do their job without wearing one, so I say great, do what you need to do to live your life,” he continues. “But if I’m working with you as a patient, and we’re working to make things better, I’m not going to have you use a back brace. If you’re looking to ride a horse for fun and relaxation, and you need a brace to enjoy your life and the ride, then by all means do it—just don’t rely on it all the time.”
If you find that you are suffering from instability or pain that is disrupting your everyday life, talk with your doctor about a referral to a physical therapist and find out what would work best for your body.
Megan Arszman is a freelance writer based in Indiana, where she’s learning to balance motherhood with horses, dogs and writing.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!