Q&A: Foot drop with Dr. Zachary Plummer

Q: What is foot drop? Is it a disease or a symptom of a neurologic disorder?

A: Foot drop is a nerve injury that leads to muscular weakness controlling the foot. Symptoms of drop foot indicate a potential neurological or muscular disorder.

Q: If I have trouble lifting the front of my foot, do I have foot drop?

A: Not all foot weakness is true foot drop. Often, you can have pain in your leg, foot or back that makes you feel like your foot or entire leg is weak. However, if you notice progressive weakness of the foot without pain, or if your foot drags when you walk, you should consult a physician about foot drop.

Q: What causes foot drop?

A: Foot drop is characterized by weakness of the muscles that contract and lift the foot. This weakness can be caused by a nerve injury or compression from a herniated disc, a muscle disorder like muscular dystrophy or a neurological disorder like a stroke.

Q: Does foot drop need to be treated immediately? What happens if I wait?

If you develop new weakness of the foot or feel your foot drag when walking, this should be evaluated quickly by a specialist.

Q: Is foot drop permanent?

A: Not all foot drop is permanent. It is often reversible, especially when caused by nerve compression from a herniated disc or spinal stenosis. But the longer you wait, the greater the potential for permanent weakness. If the foot drop is caused by a stroke or other disease, it could be permanent.

Q: What ways are there to treat foot drop?

A: First, we need to identify and treat the cause of the foot drop. This provides the best chance for full recovery. If weakness in the foot or leg persists, we can prescribe physical therapy and targeted ankle bracing.

Q: I had a stroke and now have foot drop on one side. What can be done?

A: Neurological deficits from a stroke can sometimes be permanent. However, you can regain function with time and physical therapy, so it is worthwhile to pursue those treatments to give yourself the best chance of some recovery.

Q: Can exercises or electrical stimulation help foot drop get better? How long will that take?

A: Exercise can certainly help relieve the symptoms of foot drop, especially when guided by a trained physical therapist who can work to improve strength and coordination. There are also other treatments, including electrical stimulation, that potentially could offer some benefit. You should discuss these options with your physician or physical therapist.

Q: What's the difference between foot drop and diabetic neuropathy?

A: Foot drop is a nerve injury that leads to muscular weakness controlling the foot. Diabetic neuropathy is damage to the nerves that typically leads to sensation changes in the foot – not weakness. Diabetic neuropathy often presents as a "pins and needles" sensation that starts in the toes and fingertips and then progresses. If you have diabetes or are at risk of diabetes, and you have shown these symptoms, you should discuss neuropathy with your primary care physician.

Q: When should I consider surgery for foot drop?

A: If you have concern regarding new weakness in your foot, consult with your physician and take action to decrease your risk of permanent weakness. You probably will have an MRI test for some advanced imaging. This will dictate whether surgery would be beneficial to improve the foot drop.

Disclaimer: The information in this Q&A is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, nor is it intended to serve as medical diagnosis or treatment. The information is presented for the sole purpose of disseminating health information. It is not intended and must not be taken to be the provision or practice of medical, nursing, or professional health care advice or services in any jurisdiction. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider if you have questions regarding a medical condition, and always seek the advice of your physician or provider before starting any new treatment. The information about drugs contained in this Q&A is general in nature and is intended for use as an educational aid. It does not cover all possible uses, actions, precautions, side effects, or interactions of these medicines. As such, the information is not intended to serve as medical advice for individual problems or for making an evaluation as to the risks and benefits of taking a particular drug.