Foot drop is a condition that impairs mobility in the foot, making it difficult to walk. Fortunately, there are ways to regain mobility in the foot — and one of the best methods includes foot drop exercises.
Exercises for foot drop are designed to help strengthen the lower limb muscles so that you can lift your foot up normally again. Exercise also helps stimulate and rewire the brain, which make it an effective way to overcome foot drop after a stroke or brain injury.
You’re about to discover a dozen foot drop exercises that you can start doing at home. At the end, you’ll discover other treatments for foot drop that can help boost your results even more.
How Does Physical Therapy Help Foot Drop?
Foot drop (also called drop foot) is a condition that impairs your ability to lift the top part of your foot (and our toe area) up toward your shin. This movement is known as dorsiflexion, and it’s important for walking properly and maintaining balance.
Image credit: Wikipedia
To move your muscles, the brain must send signals that tell your muscles when to contract and relax. When brain injury or stroke affects the areas of the brain that sends these signals, it can lead to foot drop.
Foot drop exercises help strengthen the muscles in the area and rewire the brain to improve your brain’s ability to send the correct signals to move your foot. This rewiring process is known as neuroplasticity, and it’s key to foot drop recovery.
Consistent practice of therapeutic exercises provides the brain with the stimulation it needs to relearn the skill of dorsiflexion. Most physical therapists send patients home with a sheet of exercises to practice on their own at home to provide the brain with the repetition it needs to recover.
Now that you know why exercises for foot drop are important, let’s start exercising.
Foot Drop Exercises for At-Home Physical Therapy
The following foot drop exercises feature physical therapist Liliana, DPT. She’s the same therapist that guides our leg exercises on YouTube.
Liliana has experience helping patients with foot drop regain mobility using these exact exercises. Here are some of her best physical therapy exercises for foot drop, organized from easiest to hardest:
1. Ankle Dorsiflexion
Start this passive foot drop exercise with your affected leg still crossed over your other leg. Then, use your non-affected arm to move your foot into dorsiflexion. This is the exact movement that people with foot drop struggle with, so this exercise is a perfect starting point.
This is a passive movement, which is a great starting point for anyone struggling with extremely limited mobility. It will also help reduce the chances of your foot and ankle muscles becoming stiff from lack of movement.
2. Ankle Adduction/Abduction
For another great passive foot drop exercise, cross your affected leg over your other leg. Then, use your non-affected hand to move the toe part of your foot up and down. (The foot will be moving side to side along the ankle with the bottom of your foot staying perpendicular to the floor.) Focus on initiating all the movement from your ankle.
Passive exercises are great for patients with severely limited mobility. If you already have some movement, then add some challenge by doing the exercise without assistance from your hand (i.e. “active exercise”).
3. Assisted Toe Raises
Toe raises are the most difficult movement to perform with foot drop. If you have difficulty with this movement — that’s okay! Fortunately, this is another passive exercise that you can use to help spark neuroplasticity and rewire the brain.
Start by placing your affected foot on top of your non-affected foot. Then, use your non-affected foot to lift your foot up. Use slow, intentional movements to help stimulate the brain.
Lift your foot up and down during this exercise a total of 10 times or more.
4. Toe Raise “Negatives”
A “negative” exercise involves emphasizing the eccentric part of a movement. With the previous Toe Raise exercise, the eccentric part of the movement is lowering your foot back down.
During this exercise, we will emphasize only the eccentric part of the movement.
Start by lifting your affected foot up into a flexed position (toes towards your shin), just like in the Toe Raise exercise. But this time, instead of dropping your foot back down quickly, try to lower your foot as slowly as you can.
This move is more advanced, because it does require some control of your foot. Try doing this a total of 10 times before moving onto the next foot drop exercise.
5. Heel Raises
This active foot drop exercise is the opposite of toe raises. Although this may not feel like it’s helping with foot drop, it will help train the surrounding muscles.
To perform heel raises, start with your feet flat on the ground. Then, point your toes and lift your heels off the ground. Repeat 10 times.
6. Ankle Eversion
For this active foot drop exercise, place your affected foot flat on the ground. Then, lift the outside edge of your foot and toes up, then relax back down.
Focus on initiating the movement from your foot and ankle and try to avoid making the movement with your leg. Repeat 10 times.
7. Ankle Inversion
For ankle inversion, start in the same position but move the inside edge of your foot and toes up towards the midline of your body, then relax back down.
8. Single Leg Stands
Standing on one foot is another great way to exercise ankle eversion and challenge your ankle stability in general.
Patients with foot drop who have enough strength and balance can try to stand on their affected leg for 15 seconds at a time. Be sure to hold onto the back of a chair for stability so that you don’t fall. The risk of falling is greater in patients with foot drop, so don’t skip this step.
9. Hip Adduction and Abduction
Although this exercise targets the leg, it’s also helpful for foot drop because increased tone (stiffness) in the leg can also affect the foot.
Start this lower limb exercise in a seated position. Then, kick your affected leg inward toward your midline (hip adduction). Then, kick your affected leg outward (hip abduction), like you’re kicking a ball to the side. Repeat back and forth.
This exercise helps with foot drop because improving mobility in the leg has a trickle-down effect into the feet.
10. Hip Rotation
To finish up these foot drop exercises, try this gross motor exercise for the lower limbs.
In a seated position, start with a towel underneath your affected foot. Then, use your arm to assist your affected leg and slide your leg and toes towards your midline (internal rotation). Then, push your leg and slide your leg and toes outwards (external rotation).
These last two foot drop exercises target the legs, which can be helpful for patients with severe foot drop when it’s coupled with other lower limb impairments.
Watch More: Foot Drop Exercise Video
If you want more visual guidance, here’s a great YouTube video with foot drop exercises from more well-known physical therapists.
Bob & Brad are popular physical therapists on YouTube. While they don’t specialize in stroke rehab like Liliana, their video contains similar exercises, like eccentric movements and hip adduction.
Pick and choose the exercises that are most comfortable for you to start with, and work your way up from there. Ideally, it’s best to work with your own therapist to address concerns with foot drop, and continue exercising at home between therapy sessions.
If your insurance covers outpatient therapy, it’s worth the hassle of scheduling an appointment with a physical therapist. PT’s understand the complexities of the human body and can help provide exercises that may not be covered in this article.
Other Foot Drop Treatment Methods
Foot drop exercises aren’t the only way to recover from foot drop. In fact, recovery often occurs faster when multiple rehabilitation treatments are pursued.
Below, you’ll find the most popular treatments listed from least invasive to most invasive. Talk to your therapist to see which recommendations are suitable for you.
Passive exercise is a great foot drop treatment for anyone that has zero mobility in their foot.
As seen in the first exercise above, exercising passively involves assisting your foot through the movement. This helps improve blood flow and activate neuroplasticity, which helps recovery from foot drop after neurological injury like stroke.
At-Home Rehab Exercise Equipment
Many patients struggle with practicing foot drop exercises at home. Not because they don’t know what to do (after all, there’s a dozen ideas in this article alone), but because they don’t have the motivation or accountability.
This issue is solved with high-tech rehab exercise equipment like Flint Rehab’s FitMi home therapy. The device turns that written sheet of exercises into an interactive experience that helps motivate you to exercise. See how a stroke patient named Ron regained foot mobility with FitMi:
“With the FitMi, I have immediate feedback and also weekly feedback on how well I am doing. I am having great fun with this product. I have noticed real-world results as well.
I drive one-footed now rather than two-footed because I can target the gas pedal and the brake with my right foot. I can target the cruise control set button with my right hand. These accomplishments are due to the exercises and feedback of the FitMi.” -Ronald
Aside from foot drop exercises, electrical stimulation is one of the best complimentary treatments for mobility issues after stroke.
Electrical stimulation involves applying electrical currents through the skin to the nerves and muscles. It has been shown to help improve foot drop and gait in stroke patients. Many studies show that combining electrical stimulation with rehab exercise leads to even better results.
Work with a physical therapist to learn where to place the electrodes. Depending on which muscles are affected in the foot and leg, they will adjust accordingly.
Ankle Foot Orthotics
Ankle foot orthotics offer support to the foot so that it doesn’t drag on the floor, which helps improve your safety. Ask your therapist to recommend a suitable AFO brace for foot drop for your needs.
While AFO’s are often necessary and very beneficial, it’s important to understand that they are a compensation technique and can encourage dependence on the AFO. When the foot and lower leg muscles are neglected, it often worsens the conditions.
To prevent the condition from worsening, the use of an AFO should be accompanied with consistent foot drop exercises to encourage recovery and prevent learned nonuse.
If foot drop has not improved after consistent, long-term rehabilitation, nerve transfers can be considered. This surgery works by taking “donor nerves” from other parts of the body and transferring them to the affected area.
Surgery is an invasive treatment that should be a last resort. Usually, doctors recommend surgery if foot drop has not improved after 6-12 months of consistent rehabilitation.
Stimulate the Brain to Improve Foot Mobility
The first line of defense against foot drop is rehab exercise. Regular, consistent practice helps rewire the brain and improve mobility in the foot and lower extremities.
By combining rehab exercise with other techniques, like electrical stimulation, patients can boost recovery further. When foot drop is severe, patients can start with passive exercise and work their way up from there.
We hope this guide has helped you understand your options for overcoming foot drop.