What is foot drop & what causes it?
Foot drop is a simple name but its cause and treatment may be less than simple.
If you are unable to lift your foot up at the ankle and it makes walking difficult, you may have something called foot drop. This could be due to weakness in one of the muscles responsible for lifting, or dorsiflexing, your foot. It could also be caused by tightness or spasticity in the calf muscles of your leg that cause your toes to point downward.
The cause of foot drop can be from several different sources – neurological, muscular, a side effect from medication, or from a lack of movement.
People with stroke, multiple sclerosis, acquired brain injury, spinal cord injury, or cerebral palsy have a central neurological reason causing weakness, tightness or spasticity. People with peripheral neurologic disease may also have foot drop. These diagnoses could include neuropathy, injury to the lower spinal cord, nerve damage, or illnesses like Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Those who have a traumatic accident or muscular damage could also suffer from foot drop because of damage from swelling and compression.
Certain medications are known to potentially cause foot drop. Talk to your doctor about your medications.
Foot drop can also occur in people who are in bed for a prolonged amount of time. When lying on your back, gravity pulls down your foot, and can cause weakness and overstretch the muscles and nerves on the front of your lower leg.
Can foot drop be prevented?
If you or your loved one is required to be on bedrest or immobile, you can help to prevent foot drop by using a padded splint, by doing stretching, and by doing active exercises like ankle pumps.
If you have an underlying condition, it may be impossible to fully prevent foot drop from occurring. But often you can improve the flexibility and strength in your leg, or use an orthosis or splint to help maintain your foot in a position that will allow you to walk and move safely.
How can foot drop be treated?
The treatment of foot drop depends on the cause and the symptoms you have. Below are some suggestions on what you can do, but make sure to talk to your doctor, therapist or orthotist about the best treatment options for you.
Keep your foot and ankle flexible:
Use a foot splint at night
Complete daily stretches. The ProStretch gives a great stretch
Improve the tone in your leg:
Use an orthosis that puts your ankle in a slight stretch
Strengthen your leg:
Use neuromuscular electrical stimulation
Complete exercises against gravity or with resistance like a Theraband
Improve the safety of your walking and prevent falls:
Use an ankle foot orthosis to keep your toes up when walking. Depending on your strength level, you may need a flexible one or a rigid one
Modify your home to prevent you from tripping or falling – consider removing rugs and floor clutter, sitting on a shower chair instead of standing, and observe your home for other potential hazards
Prevent skin problems with the use of splints and orthotics:
Make sure to check your skin after you’ve been wearing it, and more often if you have impaired sensation in your legs, diabetes, or a history of wounds. Use a hand held inspection mirror to help
Keep the rest of yourself of healthy:
Consider activities like stationary biking or swimming to complete overall strengthening and conditioning
Strengthen your core muscles to improve your overall balance and stability
What are the dangers of not treating foot drop?
The biggest risk of not treating foot drop is tripping and falling. Falls lead to injury and other unnecessary treatments or hospitalizations. In order to clear your toes to avoid falling, you will have to change the way you walk. Over time, this could lead to pain or discomfort in your back or legs. Also, if your ankle loses flexibility and you cannot move it at you may need surgery.
Most importantly, without treatment you will have more difficulty doing the things in life that you enjoy doing. Unfortunately, there may be no cure, but there are things you can do to help improve the quality of your life.
Who should I ask for more information?
If you have already been diagnosed or are concerned about your risk for foot drop, you should speak with your healthcare provider about what you can do to prevent and treat it.