Foot Drop

Definition

Foot drop, sometimes called drop foot, is a general term used to describe difficulty lifting the front part of the foot. If you have foot drop, you may drag the front of your foot on the ground when you walk.

Foot drop isn't a disease. Rather, foot drop is a sign of an underlying neurological, muscular or anatomical problem.

Sometimes foot drop is temporary. In other cases, foot drop is permanent. If you have foot drop, you may need to wear a brace on your ankle and foot to hold your foot in a normal position.

Symptoms

Often, the only sign of foot drop is difficulty lifting the front part of the foot. Your foot may drag on the floor when you walk or slap down onto the floor with each step. You may compensate by raising your thigh when you walk, as if you were climbing stairs. This is sometimes called steppage gait.

Sometimes, foot drop is accompanied by pain, weakness or numbness in the foot.

Foot drop typically affects only one foot. Depending on the underlying cause, however, it's possible for both feet to be affected.

Causes

Foot drop is caused by weakness or paralysis of the muscles below the knee involved in lifting the front part of the foot. The underlying causes of foot drop are varied. Often, neurological, muscular and anatomical problems overlap.

Specific foot drop causes may include:

  • Muscle or nerve damage. An injury to the muscles that control the ankles and toes can cause foot drop. Sometimes nerve damage from an injury to the nerves in the lower spine or leg to the long-term nerve damage of diabetes (neuropathy) causes foot drop. In other cases, nerve damage occurs during hip or knee replacement surgery. Pressure to the nerve on the outside of the shinbone just below the knee (peroneal nerve), as you might experience if you sit with your legs crossed for too long, can trigger temporary foot drop.
  • Muscle or nerve disorders. Various forms of muscular dystrophy, an inherited disease that causes progressive muscle weakness, may contribute to foot drop. Various forms of compartment syndrome, a condition characterized by the compression of nerves and blood vessels within an enclosed space, may have the same effect.
  • Central nervous system disorders. Disorders that affect the spinal cord or brain such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis or stroke may cause foot drop.
  • Drug reaction. Various medications including some chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer and certain drugs used to treat multiple sclerosis may have a toxic effect that leads to foot drop.

Peroneal nerve
Illustration of peroneal nerve
Enlarge Image
The peroneal nerve is on the outside of the shinbone just below the knee. Pressure to the peroneal nerve, as you might experience if you sit with your legs crossed for too long, can trigger temporary ...

When to seek medical advice

If you can't lift your foot or you drag your foot when you walk, consult your doctor.

Tests and diagnosis

Foot drop is usually diagnosed during a physical exam. Be prepared to describe how the problem began, as well as any other signs or symptoms you're experiencing. In some cases, additional testing is recommended:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create cross-sectional images of certain parts of the body.
  • Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies. These tests measure electrical activity in the muscles and nerves.
Treatments and drugs

Treatment for foot drop depends on the underlying cause. If the underlying cause is successfully treated, foot drop may improve or even disappear. If the underlying cause can't be treated, foot drop may be permanent.

Specific treatment for foot drop may include:

  • Braces or splints. A brace on your ankle and foot or splint that fits into your shoe can help hold your foot in a normal position.
  • Physical therapy. Exercises to improve the way you walk may be helpful.
  • Nerve stimulation. Sometimes stimulating the nerve that lifts the foot when you step (peroneal nerve) improves foot drop, especially in the case of foot drop caused by a stroke. In some cases, a small, battery-operated electrical stimulator is strapped to the leg just below the knee. In other cases, the stimulator is implanted in the leg.
  • Surgery. In some cases, nerve or spinal problems can be surgically corrected.

The goal of any type of treatment for foot drop is to help you maximize your mobility and independence.



The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by the University of Minnesota.