Podiatrist Examining A Patient's GaitFoot drop describes a condition where you have a hard time lifting the front of your foot. It is sometimes also called drop foot. Because you can’t lift the front of your foot, you may drag your toes when you walk. You may trip and fall because of dragging feet. To compensate, you may also lift your thigh more, like walking up the stairs. This “steppage gait” is a common sign of foot drop. And there are ways to correct this gait.

If you have a hard time lifting the front of your foot, your foot may also slap on the floor with each step. With foot drop, you may also feel numbness on the top of your foot and toes. Leg, ankle and foot pain are also common. Foot drop can affect one or both feet. People of all ages can get foot drop.

What Causes Foot Drop?

Foot drop itself is a symptom, not a disease. Weakness or paralysis of the muscles and nerves involved in lifting the front of the foot is what causes foot drop. In turn, the weakness or paralysis could have different underlying causes. Foot drop can be temporary or permanent.

Possible causes of foot drop could be:

  • Nerve injury. Compression of the peroneal nerve in the leg may cause foot drop. This nerve is involved in lifting the foot. You may injure this nerve when you hurt your hip or knee. A “pinched nerve” in the spine may lead to foot drop too.
  • Diabetic nerve damage. Collectively, conditions that involve damage to the peripheral nervous system are called peripheral neuropathy. Diabetes and certain infections are common causes of peripheral neuropathy.
  • Neurological conditions. Many disorders and diseases can lead to drop foot, including polio and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. Multiple sclerosis, stroke and ALS can cause foot drop too.
  • Muscular dystrophy. This inherited disease can cause progressive muscle weakness, including foot and leg muscles. If the muscles are too weak to lift the foot, you may get foot drop.

If you participate in activities that chronically compress the peroneal nerve, you increase your risk of foot drop. Examples of these risk factors include:

  • Habitual crossing of the legs
  • Extended squatting or kneeling
  • Wearing a cast around the ankle to the knee

Potential Foot Drop Treatment Options

To determine the best foot drop treatment, you must first identify the root cause. If it is based on behavior, like crossing legs, you may start by reducing this behavior. If it has to do with a nerve disease, then treatment may include medication. This can help to slow the disease’s progression and reduce its symptoms.

Possible foot drop treatments, depending on cause, may include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Behavior modification and lifestyle changes
  • Medication
  • Custom orthotics
  • Splinting
  • Surgery

With an accurate diagnosis and an effective treatment plan, most people with foot drop do improve. Orthotics encourage better form. Ongoing physical therapy can help to restore normal gait and foot function.

How Can a Podiatrist Help You?

Seeing the symptoms is one thing. Figuring out what caused them and how to reduce or eliminate them is a different thing entirely. If you or your loved ones see that you have been dragging your feet, you may have foot drop. A podiatrist can accurately diagnose your situation and outline an effective treatment plan.

Diagnostic tools and tests may include X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. Medical imaging can reveal abnormalities that may be causing pain and trouble for you. Working with other health professionals to identify other diagnoses can help to find the root cause too. Electromyography is another example. It measures electrical activity in the muscles and nerves. Knowing where the damage is located is the first step to recovery.

From there, a podiatrist can offer expert insight into any lifestyle changes that can help. They can fit you for orthotics or splints, and put you on a physical therapy regimen. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can get back on your feet without numbness or pain.

Dr. Peyman A. Elison
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Founder and Managing Partner of Fixing Feet Institute