Foot drop (aka: drop foot) is a medical problem that makes it difficult to lift the forefoot. It is not a condition in its own right. Instead, it is a symptom of a greater problem, such as stroke, sciatica or a variety of muscular, anatomical or neurological conditions that may cause paralysis or weakness of the nerves and muscles needed to lift the forefoot. If you have drop foot, it will naturally affect the way you walk. You may drag your toes, step unnaturally high or swing your leg in order to move your foot along.
What can be done?
Attempting to move about with drop foot can result in dangerous falls. For this reason, your doctor may have you wear a brace for support; however, this should not be considered a resolution of the problem. Wearing a brace will only weaken your muscles and worsen your symptoms. In addition to a brace, your doctor will probably prescribe physical therapy (PT) as an essential aspect of your recovery.
In addition to formal PT sessions, your therapist will probably give you “homework”. You must follow his or her advice closely and do your home exercises diligently to keep your tendons and ligament flexible, strengthen your muscles and help your body develop new neural pathways to tell your forefoot what it is supposed to do!
Your exercise program will surely become an ongoing part of your everyday life, so it’s important to develop a regular routine and stick to it. Daily exercise promotes good range of motion (ROM), prevents stiffness, improves gait and balance and ultimately contributes to your overall safety and well-being.
What kind of exercises will you do?
Here are some examples of common exercises for drop foot after surgery or illness. These simple exercises are generally safe and beneficial for people with or without this condition; however, you should consult your doctor before starting any program of exercise.
1. Stretch: Sit on a flat surface with your legs outstretched before you. Loop an exercise band, towel or belt around the ball of your affected foot. Pull the ends of the band or fabric toward you to flex your foot. Hold the position for thirty seconds and then relax for thirty seconds. Do this three times.
Note: If you have a cane, you can use the crook of it to pull your foot toward you as demonstrated in the videos below.
2. Flex: After stretching, go immediately to flexing. Stay seated with the exercise band or towel in place and point your toes away from you while pulling the ends of the band for resistance. Do this ten times.
3. Pull: In addition to stretching, build strength by pulling. While sitting on the floor, loop a resistance band around your affected foot and tie it to a sturdy object (e.g. table leg, banister pole, etc.) Pull against this resistance by flexing your foot, pulling the toes toward you. Repeat this exercise ten times.
Note: If sitting on the floor is not possible, try sitting on your bed with the exercise band secured to your footboard or the leg of the bed.
4. Pick up marbles: While sitting, pour a couple of dozen marbles onto the floor before you. Use your toes to pick all of the marbles up and drop them into a container (e.g. a box or bowl).
5. Lift: After you’ve picked up all your marbles, put a tennis ball on the floor before you. Squeeze it between your feet and lift and extend your legs. Hold the tennis ball in front of you, between your feet for five seconds then lower it to the floor slowly. Rest for ten seconds and repeat the exercise ten times.
6. Resist! While still seated, extend both legs and place one foot on top of the other. Push down with the top foot and up with the bottom foot. Hold the isometric tension for about ten seconds, release for ten seconds. Repeat ten times and then switch foot positions.
7. Rock & roll: Support yourself with a sturdy chair, counter-top or a wall. Rock forward onto your toes and hold for five seconds. Roll back on your heels and lift your toes. Hold for five seconds. Do this six times.
8. Rise: While still supporting yourself with a wall, counter-top or chair-back, do some heel raises. Just gradually raise your heels and support your full weight on the balls of your feet. Hold for five seconds and lower for five seconds. Repeat ten times.
9. Push: Stand beside a table and press the inner side of your affected foot against the table leg. Rest your weight on the table to prevent it moving and keep up the pressure for ten seconds. Rest for ten seconds. Repeat ten times on both feet.
10. Make like a tree! Practice the yoga pose called “The Tree”. This pose is excellent for strengthening your legs and improving your balance. To perform this pose, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Breathe in and raise your hands to meet palm-to-palm above your head. Exhale, inhale, steady yourself and place the sole of your affected foot against the inner thigh of the opposite leg. Hold for ten seconds and gradually return to the starting position. Repeat five times on both legs.
Note: Ideally, the Tree Pose is performed unsupported, but if your balance is not yet strong enough, support yourself lightly with a chair, counter-top or wall and focus on the benefit to your feet and legs. You will eventually build up enough balance to perform the pose unsupported.
Recovery depends on you!
Drop foot is a very disheartening condition, and it can cause you to feel helpless. Recovery is slow and can be difficult, but if you are tenacious and exercise regularly, you will see positive results.