How Do You Treat Drop Foot?

Question: My mother has nerve compression in her low back, which has resulted in foot drop of her right foot. What other options does she have besides surgery?
—West Wendover, NV

Answer: To help our readers who aren't familiar with drop foot (sometimes called foot drop), this is a nerve and muscular disorder that prevents the patient from lifting the front of his or her foot. A person with drop foot will notice a change in their gait (known as steppage gait), and patients may also experience pain and/or numbness.

drop foot, foot drop, steppage gaitA man demonstrates foot drop. Attribution: Pagemaker787 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Nerve compression that leads to foot drop is typically caused by a herniated disc in the lumbar spine, specifically at L4-L5; the fourth and fifth vertebrae in the low back.

Most herniated discs get better with time and do not require surgery. There are many non-surgical treatments for herniated discs, including exercise, drugs and medications, and physical therapy.

Unfortunately, with drop foot, the longer the nerve is compressed, the less chance for recovery. The nerves that elevate the foot, and are affected in foot drop, are the most sensitive nerves lumbar spine—and the least resilient.

Now, you might wonder how nerve compression in your low back affects the nerves in your legs. The reason is that the nerves affected in foot drop begin in your low back and extend down to your legs and feet. When the nerve is compressed for very long, cells in the nerve become damaged and the nerve cannot transmit the signal to the feet. This nerve damage can be irreversible.

Consequently, foot drop is often permanent, even if the nerves are decompressed surgically. Regardless, the duration of foot drop and the amount of compression should be evaluated by a surgeon. You can learn more by reading our article, Drop Foot Steppage Gait.

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