What Is Foot Drop?

Foot drop is a term that refers to a weakening of the muscles that allow for flexing of the ankle and toes.

This condition causes the individual to drag the front of the foot while walking. To compensate for this dragging, the patient will bend the knee to lift the foot higher than in a normal stride (high steppage gait).

Foot drop typically affects the muscles responsible for moving the ankle and foot upward, specifically the anterior tibialis, extensor halluces longus, and extensor digitorum longus.

A quick test for foot drop is to try to walk on the heels. If this is difficult, foot drop may be present.

While foot drop is a neuromuscular disorder that affects the nerves and muscles, it is not actually a disease. It is a symptom of another underlying medical problem, possibly a condition in the lower back.

Foot drop is often a symptom of sciatica: What You Need to Know About Sciatica

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Characteristics of Foot Drop

Foot drop may seem straightforward, but it is actually a uniquely complex symptom. Here are several variations in how foot drop may present:

  • Foot drop may resolve on its own in a few weeks even without treatment, or it may require surgery for treatment. For example, if a lumbar herniated disc is causing the foot drop symptoms and the disc resolves, then the foot drop may get better as well. Conversely, if the lower back condition persists, the foot drop may persist as well.
  • See Lumbar Herniated Disc: What You Should Know

  • Foot drop may occur without any symptoms of foot pain or leg pain. It may be the only symptom that something is wrong, or it may occur with pain and/or neurological symptoms such as tingling or burning.
  • See Leg Pain and Numbness: What Might These Symptoms Mean?

  • Foot drop may be accompanied by a loss of balance or lack of balance, making it difficult to walk without assistance.
  • Foot drop may occur in only one or in both feet (bilateral).

Key indicators of foot drop include a high steppage gait—having to lift the leg in an exaggerated fashion to keep from tripping—and/or difficulty walking on the heels with the front of the foot raised up.

Anyone who suspects drop foot is advised to consult with a medical professional as soon as possible to seek appropriate treatment and avoid possible complications.

Understanding the specific underlying cause of the foot drop symptoms and getting an accurate diagnosis are the first steps in determining a treatment plan.

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Written by Grant Cooper, MD