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Learning About Foot Drop

Man sitting doing exercise for foot drop, using strap to pull toes back toward himself

What is foot drop?

Foot drop is a problem that makes you unable to lift the front of your foot normally when you walk. It's called foot drop because the front of the foot drops instead of pointing up when you walk. You can have foot drop in one or both feet.

What causes it?

Normally, your brain, nerves, and muscles work together to help you walk. Foot drop may occur if you have a problem with your:

  • Brain. A stroke or other problem can damage the area of your brain that helps you move your legs and feet. This can cause foot drop.
  • Nerves. Pressure on or damage to the nerves that help you move your leg and foot can lead to foot drop. This can happen near the knee from a cast or from surgery. Or it can happen to the nerves in the lower back from a problem like a herniated disc.
  • Muscles. Some kinds of muscular dystrophy or other muscle problems can cause foot drop.

What are the symptoms?

When you walk, you may need to bring your hip higher than normal to keep your foot from hitting the ground. When your foot does touch the ground, it may flop down toe first instead of heel first.

You may notice that you often trip. This happens because the front of your foot rubs on the ground, especially on a surface that is uneven like a ledge or carpet.

How is foot drop diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam. This will include watching how you walk, checking your reflexes to see how your nerves are working, and checking for weakness in your muscles. Your doctor may order tests, including:

  • Nerve tests. These tests show how well and how fast the nerves send electrical signals to your muscles.
  • Imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan. These tests can show pressure on a nerve in your back or can help find problems in your brain.

How is foot drop treated?

The treatment depends on what is causing the foot drop. If it's from pressure on a nerve near the knee or in the back, removing that pressure may make your foot drop better. This could involve removing a cast or even having surgery to repair a damaged disc or nerve.

Nerves can take weeks or months to heal. If you avoid crossing your legs or your ankles, you can help reduce pressure on the nerves that can cause foot drop.

Your doctor may prescribe a lightweight leg brace and a shoe insert. They can help keep your foot from dropping when you walk. They can help if you have a short-term problem such as pressure on a nerve or a long-term problem like a stroke. Physiotherapy and exercises also can help you walk safely.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.