Foot drop is a condition that causes people to have a difficult time lifting their foot completely off the ground while walking. Foot drop is often noticeable after heel strike. The foot’s weak muscles cause it to slap the ground rather than pushing off normally.
This condition usually only affects one foot, but it can affect both feet and it is usually caused by nerve damage.
Foot drop can also be caused by muscle damage or foot deformities. The condition causes a person to lift the affected foot high so the toes can clear the ground while stepping forward. This is known as steppage gait. Foot drop is more common in men than women, but it can affect anyone of any age.
How Do I Know I Have Foot Drop?
Foot drop may be a symptom of an underlying neurological, muscular, or nerve disorder, but it has symptoms of its own, which may include:
- Difficulty lifting the front part of your foot
- Dragging your foot as you walk
- Raising your leg high when walking, as if you were climbing stairs
- Weakness in the foot
- Numbness in the foot
- Slapping your foot down on the ground while taking a step
- Tingling in lower leg
In most cases, the foot drop will affect the muscles responsible for moving the ankle and foot forward. These muscles—the anterior tibialis, the extensor hallucis longus, and the extensor digitorum longus—are located in front of the ankle.
What Causes Foot Drop?
Foot drop is usually a sign of an underlying condition. Neurological, muscular, and anatomical problems often overlap and cause foot drop. The most common causes are:
- Muscle damage
- Nerve damage
- Muscle or nerve disorders
- Central nervous system disorders
Sometimes a muscle or nerve that controls the foot is damaged or injured, which causes foot drop. Other times, medical conditions such as diabetes or compartment syndrome damage nerves and lead to foot drop.
Pressure applied to the peroneal nerve (the nerve located on the outside of the shinbone, just below the knee, that communicates to the muscles that lift the foot) can trigger temporary bouts of foot drop.
Disorders that affect the spinal cord or brain, such as multiple sclerosis or stroke, can also cause foot drop.
How Is Foot Drop Diagnosed?
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, you should consider seeing a podiatrist or foot doctor for a diagnosis. Remember that foot drop is usually caused by an underlying condition, injury, or medical complication.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose foot drop with a simple physical exam. Most doctors use a 0–5 foot-mobility scale, with 0 indicating complete paralysis and 5 signifying complete mobility.
People who have foot drop have trouble walking on their heels, so your doctor may ask you to try doing so.
Your doctor will also be interested in your personal habits, symptoms, and activities, as well as your family and personal medical history. He or she may perform imaging tests such as MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) or EMGs (electromyography) to diagnose you properly.
EMG tests measure electrical activity in the muscles and nerves, while MRIs use magnetic fields and radio waves to create cross-sectional images of the body.
How Is Foot Drop Treated?
Your treatment plan will revolve around the underlying cause of the dropped foot. Generally, treating the underlying cause improves the condition, sometimes alleviating symptoms altogether. Your foot doctor may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for your foot drop:
- Physical therapy
- Nerve stimulation
Your doctor’s goal when treating foot drop will be to improve your mobility. Braces and splints can fit into your shoes to keep your foot in a normal position.
Physical therapy may help to strengthen your weak muscles, improve your range of motion, and improve your mobility.
In more severe cases, you may need to undergo nerve stimulation. Surgery is usually performed if the foot drop is permanent. Surgical procedures usually involve tendon transfers to improve mobility.
Healing times vary for foot-drop treatments, depending on the cause. If the condition is caused by an injury or by nerve damage, your recovery could take up to six months. Your recovery may also be delayed if you have to wait for treatment.
For example, if a nerve has been damaged and needs repair, you may have to wait two to four weeks before surgery can be preformed. Your recovery will be closely watched by your doctor to ensure that you are healing properly.
You will be required to follow your doctor’s instructions and avoid further compression. If you have a progressive neurological disorder, you may experience foot drop as a symptom of your condition for the rest of your life.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Here are some questions to ask your doctor:
- What are the success rates of the available treatment options?
- Is treatment necessary, or will the foot drop go away on its own?
- What is the expected duration of the treatment we plan to use?