Lessons from 16 Years with Foot Drop: The Story Behind TreadStrap

Hi, I'm Troy, the inventor of TreadStrap. This is my personal story about the injury that caused my foot drop and the challenges I experienced and lessons I learned that led to my AFO epiphany and this product line. This is not a short story but hopefully it's a quick read. I've worked hard to give you just the important aspects of the story that will help the most people, regardless of your interest in the TreadStrap product. I hope that after 16 years of trials and error, others can benefit from what I've learned along the way, whether you've just recently joined the club or have been here a while and settled in for the long haul. 

Sixteen years before my foot-drop AFO epiphany, I woke up in a hospital bed and was told by my surgeon that the back surgery to fuse my L4 and L5 vertebra due to a herniated disc had not gone well and while my back should be fine, I would now likely not be able to walk normally without the help of a brace, because I likely had "foot drop." I didn't know what any of this meant. My head was spinning. My wife was one one side crying as the doctor on the other told me the news and I couldn't process what was happening at first. This wasn't even a possibility I had been aware could happen, so to say it came unexpectedly is an understatement. 

When I asked to speak to my surgeon again once my head was cleared moments later, I was told I would not be able to, that hospital protocol -- or whatever -- prohibited him speaking to me after a surgery with complications. I was confused and stunned. Why couldn't I speak to my surgeon? How else was I going to get any explanations? They sent a hospital representative to explain to me no more than "when the surgeon removed some clamp on a nerve (or something), it stopped functioning."  That was it. That's all I got as far as explanation as to what happened. But the result was I had foot drop. I couldn't lift my foot. It was overwhelmingly devastating. 

After my back and body was ready after the surgery, they put me in a hospital-issued plastic AFO (ankle-foot orthosis) that I had to slide my foot into and went up to my knee and strapped onto my calf. And then I had a walker to help get me to the physical therapy room where I would spend another few weeks learning to walk. After a month in the hospital, they sent me to a rehabilitation center where I'd spend another several weeks before finally going home to my three young sons, the oldest being five years old. 

I had the opportunity to transfer with my company from Texas to Colorado soon after our first son arrived and we moved before his first birthday. We wanted a new start with our new family in a new state we had fallen in love with and I looked forward to exploring the great outdoors with our young family we had plans to expand. Which we did and had two more sons. And then the back surgery came.

The insurance I had with the company I was working for at the time approved my short-term disability claim, but not long term. I wasn't ready for work, still struggling to walk and depressed out of my mind. This was not good because we were already buried in medical bills from the prior two years, even though we had "good" health insurance. 

In the two years prior to the back surgery I had a bizarre and unexpected run of medical issues. First, emergency knee surgery after a freak accident hanging Christmas lights. Then, an emergency appendectomy, which literally almost killed me if I had not pressured the ER staff to move faster. Then, only weeks before my scheduled back surgery, I had an emergency hernia repair which was "routine" but lead to another ER visit the night after due to complications.

After all of that I went in for "routine" back fusion surgery because I had been close to killing myself with an opioid addiction thanks to the herniated disc that hadn't been properly diagnosed and identified for many years before because my doctor was happy to adjust my back and refill my opioid prescription rather than get to the root of the problem with proper tests. It was a very rough two years of medical issues topped off by the final episode of a back surgery gone wrong that would force me to learn how to walk again. 

Two years of these extreme medical bills and my company having to let me go because I was unable to work and was not approved for long-term disability, even though my wife was gainfully employed as a teacher -- the family was on her insurance prior to the job I had when I got the back surgery -- we were forced to sell our house and file medical bankruptcy. No doubt the lowest point for me and our family. But, you keep going. You keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Depression took deep root though I would fight it with therapy and more drugs (mostly prescribed). This was happening just as Colorado was approving marijuana for medicinal use and I discovered it to be a healthier alternative to my opioid addiction which was coming back to haunt me after the surgery because I required pain medication for some time. But the cannabis helped me kick the opioid addiction and eventually I switched completely to medical marijuana for pain management and ultimately depression and anxiety as well.  I am very comfortable with the idea that marijuana may well have saved me from an early death by opioids. The fear of dying from a drug overdose before my sons grew up is why I decided to go for the back surgery and attempt to fix the pain permanently. The back pain is gone now, I just have this thing called foot drop.

It was several months before I got rid of the walker and another few weeks with a cane before I could get around without anything but my plastic AFO.  It was no small thing for most of the 16 years. The ways in which it impacted me I will try to explain here, but as anyone with any medical challenge can attest to, nobody will truly understand your struggle besides you. Even those of us with foot drop have wildly different stories. So, my experience may not match yours, but what I have learned may also help others, so I have chosen to share it here, because it will more fully explain why I invented TreadStrap 16 years later after the injury. 

I went back to my career eventually in product management working in tech. But I wasn't happy. I had started my tech career at the beginning of the Internet and while I had some early successes and exciting opportunities in a quickly evolving technology world, I have always dreamed of physically building products. I had always invented solutions in my head even as a child, but my ideas always seemed too big to actually pursue. I had told myself a lie that if I just stick to what I know (tech) and climb whatever ladder I can find, eventually I will be in the financially position and have the right foundation to launch whatever product ideas I have in the future.  And while I love the Internet and what technology can do, I would find myself preferring tinkering in my garage with physical things I could put my hands on. But I kept denying myself permission to pursue what I spent most of my time dreaming about. 

Over ten years ago around 40 years of age I had a midlife career crisis that lasted years. And it was during this period that I came to accept that I had to find a way out of tech and into physical product development. But my ideas were about everything BUT the type of product I was wearing on my foot -- unrelated products I've either launched or am still developing. I still shake my head when I think about it, because you would think with all the stuff I have come up with over the years, some of that creative energy would have been directed down at the one thing that had truly caused me so much suffering and so much heartache over the past 16 years, my plastic, hinged AFO. Yes, I hated it. But it was all I had ever known. I had become familiarly uncomfortable in my "full-body cast."

I still have my original AFO today. On a shelf. It's remarkable I haven't given it a pet name because it went everywhere I went. And I hated it.  A few months after the surgery living with this AFO I figured out I didn't need it to go all the way up to my calf and so I had it shortened to half the height. And that's what I stuck with for the next 16 years. 

But I didn't know or even think to consider there could be alternatives to my plastic, hinged AFO. No doctor or orthotist suggested alternatives. I assumed what I had was just what you got when you have foot drop. So, every year or few I would go in and get my plastic AFO "refreshed" at a local orthotist office and they'd stick some new foam padding on it and a new strap that wasn't fraying all over the place. I hated the hard plastic. I hated how the AFO made it hard to walk longer distances, even though I'd force myself. Why was it hard? Because my feet would hurt, especially the one with the AFO. 

I thought I had nerve damage in my feet from the botched back surgery and there was nothing I could do about it. I would just have to live with pain for the rest of my life. So, I'd try to mentally toughen myself up to get back in shape or take those longer hikes with my family because I had FOMO (fear of missing out) when it came to my sons and family activities. 

I never had an orthotist suggest I look at any alternatives to my original AFO. I never had any of them suggest I get an orthotic for my other foot to balance out the hips being thrown off by the plastic AFO. I would go in and tell them I needed a refresh for my AFO and they would give me one. And I'd go on my way thinking this is just my life. Complaining about it won't fix it, so you might as well learn to live with it. So, I did. And I coped fairly well, even with the pain.

As my sons have grown into adulthood they became more active outdoors and have started hiking 14ers in Colorado (mountains over 14,000 ft) and I'm doing good to hike a few hours before my feet can't take the pain anymore. So, I have not just had FOMO. I've actually missed out. Many, many times. And about two years ago I had had enough. I was tired of missing out with my sons and tired of the notion that I'd never be able to join them on those 14ers, EVER. There had to be a way, I started telling myself. 

I had been working on other product development projects when I had this moment where fear of missing out became anger at missing out and I started asking myself "if I had so many bright ideas for other product inventions, why couldn't I figure out how to make an AFO that gets me off the plastic and is convenient to put on?"  Why couldn't I come up with something I find practical. You see, the frustration with my AFO had already begun a few years before and I started researching alternatives on my own for the first time.

I first discovered the Smart-Step online and it looked similar to mine but I thought maybe it was something that would work better. I went to my orthotist to see if they could get me in one. They hadn't heard of it, but were able to get set up with the manufacturer and cover it with my insurance. But they went to school on me. They didn't know about this alternative, which had been around for years by this time. I was so excited to try something different. And when it finally arrived, I could hardly wait the few weeks before the orthotist could schedule me to come in.

I was surprised by the product because the bulky, protruding hinge in the back turned out to be less discreet and more uncomfortable than what I had. And borderline dangerous if I wanted to cross my legs. When you're used to the hinges inside the shoe, a double wide hinge in the back isn't actually the improvement I expected. The foot plate was actually thicker than the plastic on my own AFO and didn't seem to conform to my foot very well, but there also didn't seem to be anything you could do about it. The orthotist just said it may take time to adjust.

Well, I tried to adjust but the pain and discomfort it was causing became hopeless and I didn't see the point of going backward in comfort when I only gained a more obvious, less discreet AFO. But I have to say, those compression joint things that come with the Smart-Step are pretty genius and I see why so many people love it. But I couldn't make it work for me. So, I went back to my original AFO. But I wasn't done searching.

I learned about the electronic Walk-Aid that you wear around your calf and it stimulates the nerve after detecting your gait and fires the muscles that lift the foot. Wow. I thought I had found the big answer.  And I naively assumed it would work for anyone with foot drop. I even took two of my sons in with me because I thought it was going to be this special, emotional moment where their dad would be able to walk brace-free for the first time.  That was a big mistake.

The boys were fine, but the Walk-Aid didn't work for me. The orthotist couldn't get it to stimulate the nerve likely because it's been so long since my surgery the nerves have atrophied and aren't reachable somehow.  So any new foot droppers with insurance that covers it, check it out. If I could be the bionic foot dropper, I would. After we realised it wasn't going to work for me, my orthotist said she had heard there have been reports of the device having connection or firing issues. It's a new electronic device and they take time to work out the kinks. But really, who doesn't want to be the bionic foot dropper? In my case the orthotist seemed as hopeless as I was and so I walked out of that deal feeling pretty sad. I had set my sons up for disappointment, but it was their dad that was really bummed. So, I went back to my original AFO. But I wasn't done searching.

Then I discovered the Turbomed X-Tern and was, again, excited about the alternative. It looked great online and the models in their ads looked like bad-asses running and climbing rocky terrain. That's what I need for the mountains and those 14ers one day, I thought. I couldn't believe you could wear something outside your foot and get off the foot plate. It seemed too good to be true. But it wasn't.  I had my orthotist fit me, because again, they never brought the product up to me, I always had to bring alternatives up to them. But they could fit me and order it and thankfully I had insurance that would cover it, because I discovered how much it cost.

The price for the Turbomed X-Tern and other AFOs on the market bothered me because paying more than a grand for an AFO tells me that what they charge the patient is more about our broken health care system and insurance racket and not the cost of the product itself.  I don't know what it costs to make an X-Tern and I don't know what the markups are, I just know what they charge on their website which does not include insurance markups and what my insurance was billed when I got mine and it's about a grand or higher (US). And it's only going to be accessible to those with the right health insurance or financial liquidity. But I wanted that TurboMed.

And I got it. And I had mixed feelings. It didn't seem quite so bulky in the photos. I don't know how the brain tricks one into seeing something that isn't there, but I thought somehow it could live on the outside of your shoe and still be discreet, but that wasn't the case. While I found the technology amazing in terms of out-of-the-box and out-of-the-shoe, it was about as non-discreet an AFO you could ask for. It's all out there for the world to see. And if you're an athlete wearing shorts anyway, any AFO is going to show so who cares. But if you're trying to go into business meetings or work situations, social situations or just about anything else, discreet is the last thing the Turbomed feels. It feels like an attention magnet, because it is.

Because it's a great piece of engineering that attaches to the outside of your shoe. Athletes should love it and they do. And anyone who likes to let their foot-drop light shine, this is the AFO for you. But I soon realised, for what I need -- something with less shine -- it wasn't going to work.  Beyond the shine factor, installing it requires some hand skills which some have and some don't. That wasn't the issue for me. It was tricky to put on. Also difficult to move between shoes without a lot of work because you really need to zip tie it to the bracket you've attached to your shoes. But what an awesome piece of equipment Canada put out, because it really works from a technical standpoint once you get it fitted, especially if you're one-pair-at-a-time type of shoe wearer, and until TreadStrap it has been the best solution I know of for runners and athletes. But that means I'm excluding a lot of foot-plate-based AFOs that runners love, too.  But this awesome piece of machinery wasn't for me. So, I went back to my original AFO. But I wasn't done searching.

At this point, my wheels were turning. My brain was subconsciously going to work and eventually surfaced the question in my head, "How hard can it be?" How hard can it be to support a foot at 90 degrees?  What was an AFO doing exactly, anyway? What are the mechanics of foot drop and what forces does one have to manage to hold it at 90 degrees to walk. 

I started holding my right foot with foot drop in my lap for hours at a time, staring at my foot and I would lift the end up the few inches needed to get it at 90 degrees. Just inches. And again I'd ask myself how hard can holding the foot up a few inches be? Why do these AFOs have so much bulk? Is it necessary?

My product development brain tends to take over at this point and what comes next is usually something I'm unable to control. It develops and takes a life of its own as a creature in my head that must find its form. And that creature must solve the problem. And this problem was foot drop. And the only solution my brain would accept was something that was better than what I had experienced. It wasn't even days from the time I began to consciously ask myself the question "How hard can it be?" until I was in full-on product engineering mode and shortly after this is when I had the epiphany which is now the TreadStrap UnderAFO, the AFO that mounts in your shoe but above your foot, so you can walk more comfortably, and as it turned out, more discreetly. 

When I first realised I could mount the ankle strap inside the shoe in a clever but absurdly simple way, I went into denial. Even though I was testing it all day every day and it was doing the trick, I kept saying to myself, "It can't be this simple. It just can't."  I couldn't accept that after all I had gone through with my original AFO and all the money that I knew had to have gone into developing the Smart Step, Walk-Aid and Turbomed that I could have invented something like this that would actually do the job. And do it better. 

The next days, weeks and months as I was refining the idea and developing exactly how the ankle strap would be designed and how exactly it would attach inside the top of your shoe, and I built prototype after prototype, I was in disbelief this was going to turn into something beyond a possible solution for just me and my foot drop. I couldn't process that I actually had invented a product that could help others. It couldn't possibly be this simple. Could it? And it wasn't.

It was a lot of work. It wasn't simple at all to bring a product to market, but it's been the most rewarding and fulfilling thing I've ever done in my life.  Once I knew I was on to something, my brain wouldn't stop developing the product and the last two years I have experienced ten times more the all-nighters than I did in college or my early days in tech. I have never felt so driven and passionate about anything I've done. After I overcame the denial and accepted my invention for the breakthrough it was, I started asking myself how do you make this work for every type of shoe and every situation?  As a result, the original invention has evolved into a product line that covers just about every shoe and circumstance a foot dropper could hope to be in. 

As the product has developed into a full line of solutions, my own personal journey with the product has given birth to new hope for my own future and what's possible physically (and otherwise), while also exposing some dark truths about the industry that serves and produces products for the foot drop community. 

I assumed the foot pain I have had in both feet was the result of my botched back surgery and the neuropathy that resulted. But after getting off of my original hard plastic AFO for more than a few days or weeks as I did to test other alternatives, the foot pain has GONE AWAY.  Not completely as the nerves are still healing, but I have about 95% LESS PAIN in my feet when walking, but it took a few months for me to realise the pain had slowly gone away. I had finally given my poor feet a break long enough from the hard plastic foot plate to heal the damage caused by THE HARD PLASTIC FOOT PLATE.  The AFO was pressing directly on nerves in my right foot causing pain while referring that pain to my left foot as well. I got two painful feet for the price of one. No doctor or orthotist ever questioned the source of my foot pain. It was always assumed to be connected to the surgery. 

My hips have had to readjust because they are now BACK IN ALIGNMENT. It's a no-brainer when you actually put the brain on it, but sticking something under one foot for 16 years without something to balance it on the other side is going to lead to issues eventually. No doctor or orthotist every suggested balancing my hips with an orthotic in the other foot. Even Step-Smart now offers a "hip sqaure" which amounts to another foot plate to walk on in your other shoe. Yay, now we can walk on two pieces of hard plastic, so we can have balance. Congrats to Step-Smart for leading the way and providing this option. I imagine most foot droppers with traditional foot plate AFOs have never been advised to balance their hips by the experts surrounding them. 

I also had a rolling left ankle opposite the right foot with foot drop.  Early on, we discovered TreadStrap also works for weak or rolling ankles because it worked on mine.  With a "roll strap" added to the original invention, mounted under the heel, I found out we had a solution for rolling ankles, too.  But guess what?  After launching TreadStrap my weak and rolling ankle got stronger and stopped rolling. Why? Because it turns out the reason my left ankle was weak is because it was working overtime to balance me as my right hip was elevated by the right foot AFO.  I was like a three-legged stool: with one leg too long, one too short which is doing the compensating and a third leg being played by whatever I might be holding onto for balance. I had developed a problem in my left foot because it was compensating for the balance issue caused by my elevated right hip.  So, I no longer have a weak or rolling left ankle.  The concept of "heal thyself" starts coming to mind at this point. I didn't know what I was headed for, but it turns out I healed my left ankle by focusing on my right. Go figure. 

So, again, what has TreadStrap done for me besides provide me a more comfortable and discreet alternative to the AFO I wore for 16 years?  It's nearly eliminated the nerve pain in my feet. It's balanced out my hips. And eliminated weakness in my compensating left ankle.  I have no more gimp that was caused by the rigidity of my old AFO (not the foot drop itself). I have more confidence when I walk because I have a natural, normal gait again and nobody's looking at my feet when I walk into a room.  I can go to the pool or beach in comfort again. And I can confidently walk into any home that requires shoes to be removed while still having support.  All the problems I had with foot drop I eliminated, other than curing the foot drop itself, by changing the AFO I was wearing. 

I got my old life back. And my shoes.  I wasn't a big shoe person before foot drop, but I'm considering becoming one, now. 

The "dark" things I learned about the industry serving our community is that it's geared for profit and not for the patients' best interest.  Big surprise, right? That doesn't mean your orthotist or doctor has the wrong motive and won't look after your needs properly. But to assume your "experts" automatically have your best interest at heart and blindly accepting what they put on your foot as what you need probably isn't going to lead to the best results for you.

While every orthotist and doctor treating foot drop is different and have varied motives, they also have different and varied levels of dedication to having the right training and expertise, continuing education and having their patients' best interest at the heart rather than what's familiar, convenient or most profitable. 

What I learned is that there are plenty of people in the world perfectly happy to put you in a full body cast and charge you for it rather than get you the high-tech arm sling you need. Make sure your experts help you find the right solution for you or take matters into your own hands and find the solution that works for you. Be your own best advocate.

TreadStrap became more than just a solution for me. I started wanting it to work for everyone else, no matter the shoes or circumstances. I started wanting for others what I was experiencing: greater comfort and freedom.  The only shoe we haven't figured out an AFO for is high heels. Consciously, I've put high heels on the back burner - because I'm a little tired of thinking about shoes and need a tad bit of a break -- but my subconscious is likely taking cracks at it when I sleep.

In the meantime, TreadStrap has changed my life. I know it's helping change other lives. And I can only wait anxiously with anticipation as others discover how it can change theirs as well. Thank you for taking the time to learn the story behind TreadStrap and may all of your AFO dreams come true.