Do you have difficulty lifting the front of your foot? Has it impacted your gait (walking pattern) and balance? You may suffer from foot drop, and these foot drop exercises can help.
Physical therapy foot drop exercises are designed to help strengthen the lower limb muscles and also help stimulate and rewire the brain.
Rehab exercises are the best treatment for foot drop because they address the root cause.
We’ll start by explaining how exercise helps reverse foot drop, then dive straight into the physical therapy exercises for your feet.
How Does Physical Therapy Help Foot Drop?
Foot drop (also called drop foot) is a condition that impairs your ability to lift the front part of your foot up toward your shin.
This movement is known as dorsiflextion, and it’s important for walking properly and maintaining balance.
Image credit: Wikipedia
When brain injury or stroke affects the areas of the brain that controls movement, including the movement of your feet, it can lead to foot drop.
It’s important to recognize that the problem is not your muscles. The problem lies with the brain’s inability to send the correct signals to your foot.
Foot drop exercises help 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.
Now that you know why exercises for foot drop are important, lets get to the exercises.
Foot Drop Exercises for At-Home Physical Therapy
The following foot drop exercises feature physical therapist Liliana, DPT. She has experience helping patients with foot drop regain mobility using exercises just like these.
Here are some of the best physical therapy exercises for foot drop, organized from easiest to hardest:
1. Ankle Dorsiflexion
Passive exercises are great for patients that struggle with paralysis because they involve assistance.
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. Try moving your foot up and down slow.
To get the most from this exercise, move deliberately. The goal is to reconnect mind to muscle. Moving intentionally will help stimulate the brain and spark neuroplasticity.
2. Ankle Adduction/Abduction
For this passive foot drop exercise, cross your affected leg over your other leg again. Then, use your non-affected hand to move your foot up and down. 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, just like in the Toe Raise exercise. But this time, instead of dropping your foot back down, 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. 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 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.
8. Hip Adductor
Although this exercise targets the leg, it’s also helpful for foot drop because tone (or 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. Then, kick your affected leg outward, 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.
9. Lower Limb Rotation
To finish up these foot drop exercises, try this gross motor exercise for the lower limbs.
Start with a towel underneath your affected foot. Then, use your arm to assist your affected leg and slide your foot towards your midline (internal rotation). Then, push your leg and slide your foot outwards (external rotation).
These last two foot drop exercises target the legs, which can be helpful for patients with severe foot drop that’s coupled with other lower limb impairments.
Foot Drop Exercise Video
If you want more foot drop exercises, here’s a great YouTube video from Bob & Brad, “the most famous physical therapists on the internet.”
You will notice that they encourage foot drop patients to emphasize similar exercises, like eccentric movements and hip adduction.
Hopefully you can work with your own physical therapist to help address your foot drop issues. PT’s understand the complexities of the human body and can help provide exercises that you may not have previously considered useful.
Stimulate the Brain to Improve Foot Mobility
To improve foot drop as quickly as possible, try to emphasize high repetition during your foot drop exercises. Repetition helps activate neuroplasticity, your brain’s built-in mechanism for building new neural pathways.
For example, see what a stroke survivor said after using FitMi home therapy, a device that helps patients achieve high repetition of rehab exercises:
“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
As you can see, repetition and exercise make a huge difference in regaining mobility after a stroke or brain injury. The more you practice, the more real world results you will see.
Whether you use FitMi or the exercises in this article, we hope they help you get back on your feet with confidence.