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Understanding Foot Drop & Foot Drop Rehabilitation

Foot drop (sometimes called drop foot or dropped foot) is a condition that makes it difficult to raise the front of the foot and toes because of weakness or paralysis of the muscles and nerves that lift the foot. Stroke, muscular sclerosis, neurological disorders, or nerve injury cause foot drop. With foot drop, you have a higher risk of falling due to dragging your foot and catching your toes on the ground.Fortunately,several foot drop exercises can strengthen the muscles, increase mobility, and get you back to walking comfortably and confidently.

You can recognize foot drop by how it affects your gait (walking pattern). Do you drag your toes along the ground when walking because you cannot lift the front of your foot? Do you have curled toes that make it difficult to walk? Do you lift your knee higher or swing your leg in a wide arc to avoid dragging your toes or tripping? This is called steppage gait and is a common coping mechanism for foot drop issues.

Table of Contents:

What Causes Foot Drop?

There are three main causes of foot drop due to weakened nerves or muscles:

1: Nerve Injury.

Damage to the peroneal nerve, the nerve that communicates to the muscles that lift your foot, is the most common cause of foot drop. This nerve wraps from the back of your knee to the front of your shin and sits close to the surface, making it easy to damage. Damage to the peroneal nerve can be caused by sports injuries, hip or knee replacement surgery, a leg cast, childbirth, or even crossing your legs.

2: Muscle Disorders.

Any condition that causes the muscles to weaken or deteriorate slowly can also cause foot drop. These may include muscular dystrophy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and polio.

3: Brain or Spinal Disorders.

Neurological conditions can also cause foot drop. Conditions may include stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy, and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

How Do I Treat Foot Drop?

Though foot drop can be permanent, foot drop exercises and other methods of strengthening the affected muscles can help you recover and lift your foot up again.Exercise also helps stimulate and rewire your brain, making it an effective way to overcome foot drop that is a result of a stroke or brain injury.There are several treatments that can help with foot drop:

1: Physical Therapy

Therapy to strengthen your foot, ankle, and lower leg muscles is the primary treatment for foot drop and will generally be prescribed in addition to the treatment options below. Stretching, range of motion exercises, and foot drop exercises will also help prevent stiffness from developing in your heel.

2: Surgery

If a pinched nerve or herniated disc is what is causing your foot drop, you will likely need surgery to treat it. Surgery may also be necessary to repair muscles or tendons if they were directly damaged and are causing foot drop. In severe or long-term cases, you might have surgery to fuse your ankle and foot bones.

3: Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES)

If damage to the peroneal nerve is causing your foot drop, then FES may be a welcome alternative to surgery. A small device is worn or surgically implanted just below the knee to stimulate normal nerve function, causing the muscle to contract and your foot to lift while walking. Another option is a neuropathy foot bath/spa, like theSaeboStimSpa, that provides extremely safe, low-level electrical stimulation designed to improve sensation, reduce spasticity, improve function, and decrease pain in your foot.

4: Braces or Ankle Foot Orthosis (AFO)

Wearing a brace or AFO that supports your foot in a normal position is a common treatment for foot drop. The AFO brace will stabilize your foot and ankle and hold the front part of the foot up when walking. While doctors have traditionally prescribed bulky, stiff splints that go inside the shoe, theSaeboStepfoot drop AFO brace is a lightweight, soft, uniquely designedfoot drop brace/ foot drop orthosis designed to replace uncomfortable, stiff, or bulky splints that go inside the shoe.

At-Home Foot Drop Exercises

The inability to lift the top part of your foot and your toes is known as dorsiflexion. Specific foot drop exercises can improve dorsiflexion by strengthening the muscles in your foot, ankle, and lower leg. Not only are exercises important for improving range of motion, preventing injury, improving balance and gait, and preventing muscle stiffness, theywill also rewire your brain and improve its ability to send the correct signals to move your foot.

When treating foot drop, you may start by working with a physical therapist. Rehabilitation for foot drop can be a slow process, so your physical therapist will likely recommend that you continue strengthening exercises at home. Being consistent about your home exercises can maximize your chances of successful recovery from foot drop. Strengthening the weakened muscles will allow you to restore normal function and, hopefully, start walking normally again.

Like any exercise program, please consult your healthcare professional before you begin. Please stop immediately if any of the following exercises cause pain or harm to your body. It’s best to work with a trained professional for guidance and safety.

Towel Stretch

Sit on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you. Loop a towel or exercise band around the affected foot and hold onto the ends with your hands. Pull the towel or band towards your body. Hold for 30 seconds, then relax for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

Illustration of woman wearing green shirt and shorts doing a towel stretch drop foot exercise.

Toe-to-Heel Rocks

Stand in front of a table, chair, wall, or another sturdy object you can hold onto for support. Rock your weight forward and rise up onto your toes. Hold this position for 5 seconds. Next, rock your weight backward onto your heels and lift your toes off the ground. Hold for 5 seconds. Repeat the sequence 6 times.

Illustration of woman wearing green shirt and shorts doing toe to heel rock drop foot exercise.

Marble Pickup

Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor. Place 20 marbles and a bowl on the floor in front of you. Using the toes of your affected foot, pick up each marble and place it in the bowl. Repeat until you have picked up all the marbles.

Illustration of foot picking up a marble with toes doing a drop foot exercise.

Ankle Dorsiflexion

Sit on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you. Take a resistance band and anchor it to a stable chair or table leg. Wrap the loop of the band around the top of your affected foot. Slowly pull your toes toward you, then return to your starting position. Repeat 10 times.

Illustration of resistance band being pulled by a foot in an ankle dorsiflexion drop foot exercise.

Plantar Flexion

Sit on the floor with both legs straight out in front of you. Take a resistance band and wrap it around the bottom of your foot. Hold both ends in your hands. Slowly point your toes, then return to your starting position. Repeat 10 times.

Illustration of resistance band being pulled by a foot in a plantar flexion drop foot exercise.

Ball Lift

Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor. Place a small round object on the floor in front of you (about the size of a tennis ball). Hold the object between your feet and slowly lift it by extending your legs. Hold for 5 seconds, then slowly lower. Repeat 10 times.

Illustration of woman wearing green shirt and shorts sitting in a chair lifting a small orange ball with her feet doing a drop foot exercise.

Ankle Eversion

Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the ground. On your affected foot, lift your toes and the outside edge of your foot for 6 seconds, then relax back down. (You can also push the outside of your foot against a wall or sturdy piece of furniture and hold for 6 seconds). Focus on using your foot and ankle only, and not your leg. Repeat 10 times.

Ankle Inversion

Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the ground. On your affected foot, lift your toes and front of the foot, keeping your heel on the ground.Point your foot inward, rotating only your ankle. Move your foot back to the starting position and relax it back down to the floor. Repeat 10 times.

Showing Symptoms of Foot Drop?

Don’t let foot drop affect your mobility, independence, and quality of life. With proper rehabilitation and the right AFO foot drop braces to perform exercises, many people can overcome the underlying cause of their symptoms and get back to walking normally. If you are showing signs of foot drop, talk to your medical professional about treatment options.

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All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. Reliance on any information provided by the Saebo website is solely at your own risk.

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