Foot drop, also called drop foot, is more of a sign of a disease rather than a disease itself. It occurs when a certain condition or health problem causes weakness or paralysis of the muscles that lift the foot. Individuals with foot drop are unable to raise their front part of the foot, which results in scuffing their toes along the ground or excessively bending their hip and knee to lift their foot higher. This manner of walking is called “steppage” or drop foot gait.
Foot drop can affect one foot or both. It is a sign of an underlying health condition and depending on the cause, it can be temporary or a permanent impairment.
Causes of foot drop may include: neurodegenerative disorders of the brain, such as multiple sclerosis, stroke, and cerebral palsy; polio or poliomyelitis; spinal muscular atrophy (SMA); amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; spinal stenosis-the narrowing of the canal where a nerve root passes; and injury to the nerve (peroneal nerve) that supplies the muscles that lift the foot.
The most common sign of foot drop is the inability to lift the front part of the foot. Some people with the condition may compensate by overly bending their hip and knee to prevent the toes from touching the ground. Depending on the cause, a person with foot drop may also experience pain, numbness or weakness in the foot.
Treatment of foot drop depends on the exact cause. When the underlying cause is treated, foot drop usually improves or disappears. However, in some cases like progressive neurologic disorders, foot drop will be a symptom that is likely to continue as a lifelong disability.
The most common treatment for foot drop is to support the foot with leg braces and shoe inserts, called ankle-foot orthotics. These are usually made with light-weight but rigid materials. People with foot drop may also be referred to a physical therapist for exercise therapy. Exercise can help strengthen the weak muscles and maintain normal joint motion, which can improve gait (manner of walking). In some cases, devices that electrically stimulate the peroneal nerve during footfall may also be used.
For cases wherein there is permanent loss of movement, surgery that fuses the foot and ankle joint may be performed. Surgery that transfers tendons from strong leg muscles may also be an option.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (January 2009). Foot Drop Information Page. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Accessed: October 2009. Available at http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/foot_drop/foot_drop.htm