Ankle Sprains vs Fractures: How to Tell the Difference

Breaks & Fractures

Apr 30, 2020


Living life comes with fun times as well as responsibilities. And, whether you’re doing physically demanding work, participating in a sport that makes you happy, or you suffer an accident — sometimes — those experiences result in injury. But, how can you tell whether you’ve sprained or fractured an ankle? What can you do to treat it? And, is there any way of preventing it from happening again?

Ankle Sprains

Sprained ankles occur when you roll, twist, or turn your ankle suddenly. It can happen when power walking, running, or landing after a jump. If such a movement causes the ligaments that hold the ankle together to stretch or tear, the result is a sprained ankle. Symptoms often include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Tenderness
  • Inability to put your body weight on the injured ankle
  • Skin discoloration

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether you’ve suffered from a sprain or a fracture. The best way to find out is to go to a doctor for x-rays or an MRI. If the injury is mild, you can treat it at home by wrapping your ankle with an ACE bandage, wearing a brace, using crutches, or elevating your foot when laying down to reduce swelling. Your doctor will also likely recommend taking over-the-counter medications to manage pain. Icing your ankle can also help reduce pain and swelling.

Although sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether you’ve sprained or fractured your ankle, fractures occasionally have telltale signs that differentiate them from sprains. These include:

  • Hearing a cracking sound at the time of injury
  • Feeling numbness or tingling
  • The ankle looking misshapen
  • Pain is directly on your ankle bone

Ankle Fractures

It’s important to note that there are different types of fractures. Generally, when people think of broken bones, the image that comes to mind is the kind of injury that happens after blunt trauma — such as a fall or being hit hard by an object. While these types of injuries exist, one of the most common types of injuries among athletes are stress fractures. There are also instances where a person can experience a pathological fracture.

What is a stress fracture?

A stress fracture is a hairline crack on the bone that occurs as a result of repetitive activities — such as running or jumping. They typically happen when a person increases the intensity of their workouts too soon and/or fails to take time to rest and recover. They occur gradually, and it takes time for a person to notice they are injuring themselves. Symptoms include pain when you start doing your activity of choice, swelling, and skin that feels warm to the touch. A unique characteristic of a stress fracture is that the pain often disappears when you stop doing the activity that caused it in the first place. If your doctor suspects a stress fracture, they will take an X-ray to confirm diagnosis, order rest for a specific timeframe, and recommend using crutches or a boot to prevent putting your entire body weight on your feet.

What is a pathological fracture?

A pathological fracture is one that occurs to a person whose bones are weakened due to an underlying medical condition, such as osteoporosisosteomyelitisosteosarcomaarthritis, or metabolic bone disease. In some cases, the person may not initially realize they have a broken bone, since the symptoms could be confused with those of their medical condition. Typically, the patient will feel numbness or tingling in the injured area, as well as mild to severe pain around the fracture. Although they may sometimes be unavoidable, you can lower the risk by receiving adequate treatment for the underlying condition, avoiding high-intensity activities, wearing supportive shoes or using a cane, getting enough calcium and vitamin D, and exercising on a regular basis — only doing exercises previously approved by your doctor.

Fractures From Blunt Trauma

Fractures from blunt trauma are the type of bone breaks that occur after a hard fall, violent event, or accident. There are several ways a bone can fracture — from a clean break or breaking at an angle to having bone fragments fall off and/or piercing the skin. Treatment depends on the type of fracture. In some cases, the patient only has to wear a cast to immobilize the ankle, while more severe cases require surgery and physical therapy. If the fracture is an avulsion fracture (a break at the site where the bone attaches to a tendon or ligament), your doctor may recommend doing range-of-motion exercises as part of the recovery process.

24-Hour Emergency Room Services in Colorado Springs and Texas

If you or a loved one have a strain or sprain, we can provide the care you need. If you have questions or need immediate treatment, your nearest Complete Care location is ready to help, no matter the time of day or night. We offer a variety of services to help you and your family in your time of need. No appointments are necessary.

Find the Complete Care location nearest you.