What is Drop Foot

What is Drop Foot

Foot drop is what it sounds like: a condition that causes someone to have problems lifting the upper part of the foot, from the arch to the toes, off of the floor. It may also seem like the person is dragging their foot across the floor when they walk, sometimes scraping their toes.

What to Know About Drop Foot, aka Foot Drop

Foot drop (also called drop foot) is typically caused by a nerve injury related to a muscular, neurological or anatomical issue and is not a disease or illness. It actually rarely has anything do with a foot injury at all. Foot drop is sometimes caused by an issue with the peroneal nerve, part of the sciatic nerve, which helps the lower extremities move. The peroneal nerve can be damaged in a number of ways, including athletic injuries such as a knee dislocation, direct blow injuries to the outside of the leg, immobility or other postures causing pressure on the outside of the leg, diabetes or even giving birth.

Other times foot drop can happen as a result of spine or brain disorders. These include back problems or previous spine surgery, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

Muscle disorders that lead muscles to grow weaker can also lead to foot drop. More common muscular disorders include ALS disease and muscular dystrophy.

Drop Foot Symptoms

Besides dragging the top of the foot across the floor, someone with foot drop may also feel like they actually cannot lift the top of the foot to take a step in a forward motion. This may result in lifting the hamstring and quadriceps muscles (thigh area) when walking to compensate, almost as if intending to climb stairs. Walking on a flat surface in this swing-through manner may cause the foot to hit the floor harder and with less control than it would normally, which can sound like a loud slap. We call this an equinus deformity or “high steppage gait”. Walking like this causes the force of the heel strike to be stronger than the person’s body weight and the inability to lift the toes in addition to the foot can cause undue pressure. Constant movement in this pattern can affect the skin on the toes and foot and sometimes make it feel numb.

Foot drop can happen in one foot or in both feet, based on what the underlying cause is. The condition can be temporary depending on the cause and can be fixed with physical therapy and a foot and ankle brace while the nerve and/or muscles are healing, but there are times that it can be permanent. Treatment varies and will again, depend on the cause of foot drop. If you experience symptoms that appear to be like those of foot drop you should see a foot and ankle specialist or orthopedic doctor as soon as possible.

Todd A. Irwin, MD is a fellowship-trained foot and ankle surgeon with the OrthoCarolina Foot and Ankle Institute.

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