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Do nerves grow back after foot surgery?

Nerve regeneration after foot surgery is a common concern for patients undergoing procedures like bunionectomy or arthrodesis. The short answer is yes, nerves often do grow back and regain function after being cut or damaged during foot surgery. However, the speed and extent of nerve regeneration depends on many factors.

What causes nerve damage during foot surgery?

There are a few ways nerves can be impacted during foot surgery:

  • The surgeon may intentionally cut or detach a nerve to access and repair other structures in the foot. This is often necessary during procedures like bunionectomy or hammertoe correction.
  • Nerves may be stretched or compressed during the operation. Retractors holding tissue out of the way put tension on nerves, and instruments like clamps or drill bits can pinch nerves.
  • Cauterization tools that burn or seal tissue can damage nerves with heat.
  • Nerves can be bruised or crushed from the impact of surgical tools and implants.

While nerve damage is an unfortunate side effect of foot surgery, it is often unavoidable as the surgeon needs access to bones, joints, and soft tissues to perform the procedure. Care is taken to minimize nerve disturbances, but some impacts are inevitable.

Do the nerves grow back after being cut or damaged?

The human body is remarkably capable of repairing nerve damage. Nerves in the feet can regenerate just like nerves elsewhere in the body. However, the speed and completeness of regeneration depend on:

  • The severity of the damage. Crushed nerves take longer to recover than those simply stretched or compressed.
  • The location of the injury. Nerves in the toes regenerate slower than those in the foot and ankle.
  • The patient’s overall health. Conditions like diabetes slow nerve regrowth.
  • Post-surgical inflammation and scar tissue. This can compress regenerating nerves.

With mild injuries, nerves may fully regrow in a matter of weeks. More severe damage can take several months to regain partial function and a year or more to completely resolve. Some nerve damage may result in permanent numbness or impaired sensation.

What causes nerve regeneration delay or failure?

There are a few key reasons why nerve regeneration after foot surgery may be slow or incomplete:

  • Severed Nerve Ends Fail to Reconnect. When a nerve is cut and the two ends are left disconnected, the axon has to regenerate all the way across the gap to reach the distal nerve. If too much tension or scar tissue prevents the two ends from reaching each other, regeneration may fail.
  • Chronic Inflammation or Compression. Ongoing inflammation, swelling, and fluid buildup after surgery can compress regenerating nerves. Scar tissue can also bind nerves down. This constant irritation stalls the regrowth process.
  • Blood Supply Is Reduced. Nerves need a robust blood supply to aid regeneration. Damage to blood vessels during surgery or reduced circulation from conditions like peripheral artery disease deprives nerves of nutrients and oxygen needed to heal.
  • Neuronal Damage. The neurons in the foot and leg can suffer irreparable cell body damage if axons are severely crushed or stretched. This limits how much the nerve can regenerate.

Prolonged pressure or irritation on a nerve can result in chronic neuropathic pain, even after the initial injury has healed. This occurs due to hypersensitization of the neurons.

How well do the nerves regenerate after surgery?

Complete regeneration back to pre-surgery functioning does not always occur. How well nerves recover depends on:

  • The location, type, and number of nerves affected.
  • How the nerves were impacted during surgery.
  • Patient health and risk factors like diabetes or peripheral artery disease.
  • Adherence to post-surgical protocols to protect healing nerves.

Nerves like the medial calcaneal, lateral plantar, and deep peroneal are often deliberately cut during foot surgery. Because these are purely sensory nerves, the loss of function may not significantly disable the foot. However, recovery can be very slow.

Mixed sensorimotor nerves like the tibial, sural, and saphenous nerves are vital for sensation and motor function in the ankle and foot. Damage to these nerves can cause greater physical impairment but also regenerate better than purely sensory axons.

Expected Timeline of Nerve Regeneration After Foot Surgery

Timeframe Nerve Recovery
1-4 weeks Possible return of sensation, tingling as nerve endings reestablish connections
6-12 weeks Improved sensation and function as nerves regrow towards targets
3-6 months Near complete return of sensation, moderate return of motor function
9-12 months Maximal nerve regeneration expected, function may remain slightly diminished
1+ years No further regeneration expected, permanent residual numbness or weakness likely

This table represents a general timeline guideline. Recovery pace varies by individual based on the unique circumstances of their nerve damage and repair.

Does physical therapy help accelerate nerve regeneration?

Yes, once the initial surgical healing allows mobilization of the foot, physical therapy is very beneficial for accelerating nerve regeneration and restoring function. PT utilizes techniques like:

  • Massage. Helps break down scar tissue and reduces inflammation that can impede nerve regrowth.
  • Ultrasound. Uses soundwaves to stimulate nerve regeneration. Also improves blood flow to aid healing.
  • Flexibility exercises. Gentle stretching helps encourage the regenerating axons to extend towards their targets and reduces tension on the nerves.
  • Strength training. Controls atrophy of the intrinsic foot muscles from disuse which helps nerves reconnect.
  • Balance and gait training. Restores proprioception and coordination as nerve signaling to the brain returns.
  • Orthotics. Support weak arches or malaligned joints to optimize foot mechanics for regenerating nerves.

Under the guidance of a physical therapist, non-weightbearing exercises can start within a few weeks of surgery. Full weightbearing exercises usually commence 6-12 weeks post-op once surgical healing allows. PT is typically recommended for at least 6 months after surgery to ensure maximal nerve regeneration.

What if nerve pain persists long after surgery?

For some patients, nerve pain continues long after the surgical incisions have healed. This may occur if scar tissue binds nerves down, axons fail to properly regenerate, or damage results in chronic neuropathic pain. Options to reduce persistent nerve discomfort include:

  • NSAID medications. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories can alleviate nerve irritation.
  • Nerve gliding exercises. Gentle movements stretch and mobilize nerves.
  • Orthotics. Support weakened arches and properly align the bones of the foot to take pressure off nerves.
  • Massage. Helps break down scar tissue and adhesions irritating nerves.
  • Steroid injections. Powerful anti-inflammatory medications injected locally around damaged nerves.
  • Physical therapy. Exercises and modalities to reduce neuropathic pain.
  • Surgery. Release of scar tissue compressing nerves or removal of painful neuromas.

These conservative treatments work well for many patients with postsurgical nerve discomfort. Refractory cases may ultimately require revision surgery to relieve persistent nerve irritation.

Can foot surgery be performed without nerve damage?

While minimizing nerve disturbance is a priority, surgery on the foot unavoidably impacts some nerves. Bones, joints, and soft tissues are too intertwined with nerve structures for the surgeon to access all areas without some effect.

However, there are surgical techniques to reduce nerve damage:

  • Magnification Loupes/Microscopes. Precision instruments allow the surgeon to better visualize and avoid nerves.
  • Small Joint Arthroscopy. Inserting instruments through tiny portals reduces nerve trauma versus open surgery.
  • Neurolysis. Carefully isolating nerves away from surrounding tissue to prevent impact.
  • Nerve Monitoring. Systems to electronically track nerve function in real-time during surgery.

While these methods help preserve nerves, they cannot eliminate nerve damage during most foot operations. Some degree of numbness or weakness after surgery is often unavoidable.


Nerve regeneration is possible after foot surgery, but the extent and timeframe for recovery varies. Mild injuries may resolve within weeks, while severe damage can leave permanent deficits. Proper surgical technique, patient health optimization, and post-operative rehabilitation help nerves regrow. Swelling, scarring, poor blood flow, and recurring irritation can hinder the healing process. Realistic expectations are important – nerves reconnect gradually and function is often not fully restored. While residual numbness or weakness may remain after surgery, remedies exist to help manage ongoing nerve discomfort.