The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

NFL News: Rookie Jaylon Smith’s Foot Drop Treatment and Recovery

Posted by on Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

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It was set to be his first year in the NFL, but now-former Notre Dame leading linebacker Jaylon Smith will sit out his debut season. As fans, we’re disappointed, but as podiatrists, we can’t help but approve.

foot drop treatment and recovery
The Dallas Cowboys take a chance on Jaylon Smith, who suffered a knee and foot drop injury on New Year’s Day. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons user Mahanga)

The Dallas Cowboys still took a chance on Smith with their second round draft pick, even though it was almost assured he’d miss the season and had no guarantee of recovery from his knee surgery after suffering issues with nerves in his foot. But a closer look at Smith’s injury suggests that, if he’s patient, he’s got a strong shot at full recovery – news everyone can get behind.

What Happened to Jaylon Smith?

Back on February 28th, 2016, NFL.com reported on Jaylon Smith’s knee injury, stating simply: “It’s bad.” At that point, he’d been sitting out since a January 7th surgery to reconstruct the left knee he injured in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day

Smith had braced himself for a tackle from Ohio State’s Taylor Decker. He was slammed with his leg hyperextended, tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament and injuring all the other structures on the left side of his knee. This included damage to his peroneal nerve and paralysis of all the muscles it controls. Podiatrists call this condition foot drop, and it can result in muscle weakness and functional impairments for six months.

USA Today reported that at the time of injury, Smith was “unable to lift his left foot or swing it out to the side,” and that it could take his doctors months to know “to what degree the nerve will wake up” and what sort of recovery to expect. That’s tough news when you’re hoping to be a top NFL draft pick.

What Is Foot Drop Recovery Like?

With foot drop nerve damage, there are no guarantees. But Smith’s surgeon, Dr. Dan Cooper, remains optimistic that Smith – and his nerves – will recover. He explains that the lateral damage stretched Smith’s nerve “enough to make it go to sleep, but it wasn’t stretched enough to be structurally elongated or visually very damaged” as is the case with more severe cases of foot drop.

It generally takes a month for the damaged portion of the peroneal nerve to begin to regrow – and ideally, this regrowth should continue at a rate of one inch per month. Each day, Smith reports feeling “new sensations through his leg and foot,” which happily indicates his nerve axons are regrowing. “I don’t have time to doubt myself,” he told reporters, while icing his knees between workouts. “For me, a positive attitude and constantly putting work in to get better – that’s where I’m at, controlling what I can control,” he added.

In April, Dr. Cooper reported that Smith’s nerve had regrown two inches but still had another six inches to go before it reached leg muscle. “I wouldn’t really expect him to get much innervation back into that muscle for two or three more months,” he said. “Then once it does – I’ve seen kids who are completely paralyzed like him on the lateral side and not able to pick their foot up at all [who] wind up being totally normal.”

Three months after surgery, Smith has gotten past deficit work and progressed to functional compensation drills and weight training exercises. He squats and tackles dummies while testing out a new ankle foot orthosis device that helps him lift his left foot.

As Smith continues through his recovery, it helps that he is already a “creature of habit,” as his chef, Jim Huffman, put it. Smith does his rehabilitation exercises faithfully from 9 to 11 a.m. and returns to a full afternoon of strength training from 1 to 3 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Some past high school and college football players have also played following a foot drop injury, so Smith’s prognosis seems hopeful. In the worst case scenario, Dr. Cooper says a tendon transfer could be done to hold Smith’s foot in place. In the best case scenario, Smith regains all his strength. The Cowboys say they won’t put Smith on Injured Reserve at the start of the season, taking a chance he’ll be ready for the playoffs.

Foot Drop Treatment In NYC

The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine in NYC helps athletes like Jaylon Smith through their sports injuries – from acute treatment and surgery all the way through functional rehabilitation and post-recovery therapies. We specialize in employing the latest surgical techniques and therapies to help players through a full recovery as quickly and efficiently as possible. Contact us for details.

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If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.