Ankle Foot Orthosis

Photo of a doctor examining a foot.
Your physical therapist can assess your need for an ankle foot orthosis.. Lisa Blue/Getty Images

Definition: An ankle foot orthosis (AFO) is a hard brace worn on the lower leg to support and ankle and foot. This device keeps the ankle in a neutral position during walking and other daily activities. The AFO gently raises up your foot, ankle and toes to keep your toes from dragging on the ground while walking. This helps to improve your overall safety and speed with walking.

People who suffer from a foot drop, or inability to raise the foot, often wear an ankle foot orthosis to assist clearing the toes during walking.

Conditions that may result in foot drop include:

  • Stroke
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Sciatica
  • Peroneal nerve injury
  • Partial spinal cord injury

If you are having difficulty with walking and are noticing you catch your toes on the floor often, you should visit your doctor to get a diagnosis of your condition and then visit your physical therapist. He or she can assess your condition and give you strategies to help treat your foot drop.

Your physical therapist can assess your gait (often people with foot drop exhibit a high steppage gait pattern). He or she may prescribe exercises to strengthen your anterior tibialis muscle in the front of your ankle. If your foot drop is temporary, a non-custom, off the shelf AFO may be used. If if appears your condition is permanent, then a custom molded ankle foot orthosis may be warranted.

Types of Ankle Foot Orthoses

There are different types of ankle foot orthoses available.

Your physical therapist can help you choose the best one for your specific condition. The standard AFO may be large and a bit clunky, but it may be necessary to fully stabilize your ankle and foot while walking.

A smaller, more mobile AFO may be one with a posterior leaf spring. This type of AFO has a small, springy back that stretches and stores energy when you step.

As you raise your foot off the ground, the posterior leaf spring helps to add a little spring in your step, quickly raising your foot and toes off the ground.

Another type of ankle foot orthosis is one with a lateral or anterior leaf spring. The benefit to that is that is may be a little more streamlined and less visible when you are walking.

A word of caution: using an ankle foot orthosis may rub abnormally on your foot and ankle, leading to skin wear and breakdown. You must check your foot daily for any signs of skin irritation. This may include:

  • Skin redness
  • Chaffing
  • Warmth to touch
  • Bleeding

If you notice any of these conditions, discontinue use of you ankle foot orthosis and see your doctor right away. You may need to have your AFO adjusted to fit properly.

If you are dealing with foot drop, you may benefit from using a device called an ankle foot orthosis in your shoe. The device, when fitted and worn properly, can help you walk with an improved stride and more safety. Your physical therapist can help you obtain and properly wear your ankle foot orthosis.

Also Known As: AFO

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