5 key differences between a sprained ankle and a broken ankle

by | Apr 1, 2024 | Foot and Ankle

How many times have you tripped over an uneven sidewalk or nearly twisted your ankle wearing shoes that didn’t quite fit? It happens all the time, to both athletes and people who aren’t particularly active. Foot and ankle injuries are very common because of the foot’s angular shape and because our feet and ankles bear the entire weight of our bodies every day.

Foot and ankle pain is one of the symptoms we see the most at Forever Fit. Some people are more prone to stress fractures because of osteoporosis, and some older patients notice pain caused by osteoarthritis in their feet. One study examining sports injuries treated in emergency rooms found that 22% were ankle injuries, and ankle sprains outpaced fractures at a ratio of 8∶1.

Ankle sprains and broken ankles can present with similar symptoms, so it may be difficult to tell right away which one you’re dealing with. Both ankle sprains and fractures can cause pain, swelling and bruising, and in some cases, you may not be able to put weight on it at all.

5 main differences between an ankle sprain and ankle fracture

The ankle is a complex joint where three bones meet with several different ligaments. A sprain happens when one of the ligaments is significantly stretched, causing damage. Moderate to severe ankle sprains and breaks will need to be immobilized with a boot, brace or cast, while mild sprains may not need much intervention.

There are some ways you may be able to tell if your ankle is sprained or if it’s fractured. But the only way to be sure is by getting an X-ray or an MRI. Sometimes physical therapists or doctors will use an ultrasound to detect a sprain.

Here are the five most apparent differences between an ankle sprain and an ankle fracture:

1.Can you put weight on it?

If your injured ankle can bear some of your weight (enough to walk with a limp), it’s most likely sprained. A fracture in your ankle will usually keep you from putting any weight on it. This isn’t the most accurate way to assess the problem right away, though. With some sprains, it may take a few hours of rest and ice before you can put your weight on the affected foot.

2.Did you hear anything when the injury occurred?

Most of the time, if you break a bone in your ankle, you will hear a cracking sound. It may continue to make clicking or grinding noises as you try to move it. A sprain might not make any noise, or you might hear more of a popping sound when the ligament pops out of place.

3.What does it feel like?

Sprains will usually cause quite a bit of pain, but fractures can cause numbness or tingling. If your ankle is hurting a lot, you can try icing it to reduce the inflammation that’s causing your pain. If you can’t bear weight on your ankle or if you’re feeling numbness or tingling in your foot, you should seek treatment immediately.

4.Where does it hurt?

The three bones that meet in your ankle are the tibia, fibula and talus. They’re connected by lateral ligaments that run along the outside of your ankles, strong ligaments that connect the shinbones together, and deltoid ligaments that connect the inside of your ankles. The Achilles tendon runs up the back side of each heel along your calf muscles, and it’s another common site of injury for athletes.

If the pain is inside your ankle joint, your injury is more likely to be a sprain than a broken ankle. But if you feel pain when you touch the bony sides of your ankle, a fracture is more likely and you should get imaging.

5.Does your foot or ankle look deformed?

A sprained ankle typically holds its shape, though it might be swollen and bruised. If you can see that your foot or ankle is bent out of shape, there’s a good chance it’s broken.

One thing to remember is that you can have both a fracture and a sprain at the same time. This happens quite frequently, so when you see a medical professional for diagnosis, be sure to ask about both.

What to do if you think your ankle is sprained or broken

There are some cases when you should seek medical attention right away: for instance, if you can’t put any weight on your foot, if you feel numbness or tingling, or if your ankle is visibly out of place. If it looks like everything’s aligned, you can try treating your ankle for a while yourself. If you can stand on it right away or within a few hours, it’s most likely a sprain that you can treat yourself. If your pain is intense, or if it doesn’t go away within a few days, then you should seek medical care.

Minor sprains can heal with PEACE and LOVE. This handy acronym can help you remember the basic treatments for soft tissue injuries: PEACE stands for protection, elevation, avoiding anti-inflammatories, compression, and education. The L in Love stands for increasing your daily “load” as your pain allows, and the remaining letters are optimism, vascularization or movement that gets your blood flowing, and exercise.

Get help for a broken or sprained ankle at Forever Fit

If you determine that your ankle is badly sprained or broken, don’t wait to see a doctor or physical therapist. Any slight misalignment in your ankle can cause pain in the future, so it’s important to make sure it heals correctly.

We’re here to help you recover from ankle injuries so you can get back to your usual routines. Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.

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