If you have an injury or illness that results in impaired function of the muscle in the front of your shin, the anterior tibialis, you may suffer from foot drop (a.k.a. drop foot). The telltale sign of foot drop is catching your toes on the ground as you walk.
A physical therapist can help treat the condition with exercises and other modalities. The main goal of physical therapy for foot drop is to improve functional mobility related to walking. This can ensure that you are able to get around safely and may lower your risk of falling.
Foot drop is caused by weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, usually from some kind of brain or nerve condition. Other times, injury to the nerves in your leg may cause foot drop.
Common causes of foot drop that may prompt your need for related exercises include, but are not limited to:
Neck or spinal cord injury
Peroneal (lower leg) nerve injury
Physical Therapy Assessment for Foot Drop
During your initial physical therapy session, your therapist will ask you questions about the nature of your injury, how your foot drop affects your life, and how long it has been present.
Various tests and measures may be taken during your initial appointment, such as:
Foot and ankle range of motion (ROM)
Lower extremity muscle strength
Functional outcomes measures
Balance and proprioception (your awareness of the position and movement of the body)
Foot Drop Exercise Examples
There are many different exercises for foot drop, some of which are not even aimed at your lower leg.
Depending on your unique case, a therapist could prescribe the following:
Anterior tibialis exercises specific to foot drop
Ankle strength exercises
Lower-back exercises: If your foot drop is caused by compression of your sciatic nerve, lower-back strengthening may help relieve it and restore normal function to your anterior tibialis.
Calf stretches: If your anterior tibialis muscle is not functioning to flex your ankle, your calf muscles may tighten.
Balance exercises: Your balance may be affected by foot drop, and these moves may help improve it. A BAPS board may also be used to help improve your balance and proprioception.
During your physical therapy sessions, your therapist may use simple devices to help improve your ability to lift your foot while walking.
These may include:
An elastic band around your leg and foot that stretches when you walk and pulls your foot up as you step forward: This is a temporary solution for foot drop, but it may help normalize your gait pattern during the initial phases of your rehabilitation.
An ankle-foot orthosis (AFO), a stiff lower leg/foot brace that can protect the foot, stabilize the ankle, and normalize gait: This is a common recommendation for cases of permanent foot drop. Several types of AFO exist, which are usually made of molded plastic or carbon fiber.
Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) may be used to help improve the way your muscle contracts and lifts your foot. This type of electrical stimulation artificially contracts your muscle to help re-educate it to contract properly.
Ankle exercises are typically performed during and after NMES treatments.
Your physical therapist can assess you during rehabilitation and evaluate your progress. Sometimes, improvement with foot drop is slow, so stick with it.