Sprain vs. break: Sprain vs. Fracture: How to Know the Difference
Sprain vs. Fracture: How to Know the Difference
Clinically reviewed by Dr. David B. Saxon.
Sprains and fractures are common injuries. Sprains are when you stretch or tear the ligaments around a joint. They vary in severity depending on how much damage is done.
Fractures are when a bone breaks to some degree. Hairline fractures are tiny cracks, partial breaks are larger cracks, and complete fractures are when a bone breaks into two or more pieces. Fractures can also be simple, meaning bone doesn’t break through the skin, or compound, meaning the bone does break through the skin and is visible.
Is It a Sprain or a Fracture?
If you suffer a compound fracture, there’s no question about it since you see the bone. However, with other injuries, it can be difficult to determine whether it’s a sprain or a fracture.
Some symptoms of a sprain and fracture include:
- Misshapen joint. Both sprains and fractures cause swelling. But if the joint looks significantly different than normal, you likely have suffered a break.
- Noise when the injury occurred. Sprains typically occur silently unless they’re particularly severe. If you break a bone, you may hear a cracking sound.
- Source of the pain. If the pain you feel is in the soft tissue around a joint, it’s probably a sprain. If applying light pressure over a bone causes significant pain, the injury is likely a fracture.
- Physical sensations. A sprain typically only causes pain. A fracture causes pain, but you may also experience tingling or numbness.
The best way to know if you have a sprain or a fracture is to get an X-ray. A doctor can look at the image to see if there are signs of a break in the bone.
Where to Get Treatment for Sprains and Fractures
If you’ve sprained a particular joint before and know that’s what you’re experiencing, you probably also know how to treat it and may not need to see a doctor. However, if you don’t know what you’re dealing with or it’s clear you have a broken bone, you should seek prompt medical attention.
The decision to go to an urgent care clinic or emergency room depends on the severity of the break. If the injury has caused significant misshaping of the bone or the bone has penetrated the skin (a compound fracture), you should go to an emergency room. If it’s a minor break with little or no change in the shape of the bone, an urgent care clinic can probably treat the injury.
Of course, if you aren’t sure, it’s best to be safe and go to an emergency room.
How Doctors Treat Sprains and Fractures
Treatment for sprains
Most sprains heal on their own, with treatment you can remember as RICE:
- Compression with an elastic bandage
- Elevation of the joint above the level of your heart
Your doctor may also have you take anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). In some cases, a sprain requires physical therapy.
The recovery time for sprains ranges from a few days to several weeks, depending on the severity.
Doctors treat fractures by:
- Realigning the bone if needed
- Immobilizing the joint with a cast or splint
- Having you avoid putting weight or pressure on the bone
- Having you apply ice to the affected area
- Prescribing pain relievers
- Performing surgery if necessary to repair the damaged bone
The recovery time for broken bones tends to be several weeks to months, depending on the bone and type of fracture.
Get Care for Sprains and Fractures at Baptist Health
If you believe you have a sprain that requires treatment or a broken bone, visit a Baptist Health Urgent Care or Emergency Care location. The team there will assess your injury and provide the appropriate care.
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Ankle Sprain vs. Ankle Fracture
The ankle is a complex joint made up of multiple pieces working together to allow the foot to move. All these moving parts also make the ankle prone to injury. In fact, ankle sprains and fractures (breaks) are among the most common injuries for Americans, impacting millions each year. Often, these injuries are exercise or sports-related. Furthermore, simple falls, twists, or missteps are common causes of each. Both injuries may make it difficult to bear weight. They can each also result in bruising, swelling, and tenderness. In fact, the two injuries are so similar they are often mistaken for one another. So, how can you tell an ankle sprain from an ankle fracture? We’ll discuss this and more in the following post. Also, don’t miss our recent post about how to tell the difference between a sprained ankle and a rolled ankle.
First, we will explain what ankle sprains and ankle fractures are. Then, we’ll go over the differences between the two, including how they are treated. Finally, we’ll let you know when it’s time to see a doctor.
What is an ankle sprain?
An ankle sprain refers to damage to a ligament, which is the connective tissue between bones. The ligament can be partially or completely torn if an injury occurs. Often sprains are rated as a grade 1, 2, or 3 depending on how many ligaments are involved and whether those ligaments are stretched, partially torn, or completely torn.
What is an ankle fracture?
An ankle fracture refers to a break in a bone. The fracture can be a non-displaced crack in the bone, meaning the bone is still aligned, but can also be displaced resulting in a disruption in the normal alignment of the bone. Most often, a broken ankle is caused by a fall, car accidents, high-impact sports, or injuries where excessive force is involved.
How can you tell the difference between the two?
You now know an ankle sprain refers to damage to the ligament (fibrous tissue) between bones and an ankle fracture is an actual break in the bone. But with that information alone, it is still very difficult to determine which injury you’ve experienced. So, if you’re still asking, “Is my ankle sprained or broken?” try answering the following questions:
- Did you hear something at the time of the injury? Most often, a sprain occurs silently, or maybe with a ‘pop’ sound in severe instances. You may hear a ‘crack’ with a fracture. Additionally, a fracture may cause a ‘grinding’ or ‘crunching’ sound upon movement following the injury.
- Is the shape of your ankle crooked, warped, or irregular? Both fractures and sprains can cause swelling. But if the alignment of your ankle is off, it is most likely a break/fracture.
- Are you numb in the affected area? Though sprains are typically very painful, fractures can often cause tingling or numbness. If numbness occurs, seek medical attention immediately, as a loss of blood flow can have significant, long-term effects and may require surgery.
- If you’re in pain, where is the pain located? If your ankle hurts or is tender when you touch directly over your ankle bone, it is probably a fracture. However, if you’re experiencing pain in the softer part of the ankle, it’s more likely a sprain.
Importantly, ankle sprains and fractures are not mutually exclusive. So, it’s possible to experience both at the same time. In fact, sprain/fracture combinations are quite common. So, be sure to seek medical advice to ensure you receive a correct and complete diagnosis.
How is an ankle sprain treated?
A grade 2 or 3 sprain usually needs immobilization in the form of a boot or brace that can be worn inside a shoe. The goal is to reduce bruising and pain, so elevation and icing can be used in tandem to help reach this goal. As the ligament heals itself, the pain will gradually ease, and the patient should be able to resume regular activities. Additionally, physical therapy is used to regain muscle stability after the duration of the injury. Grade 1 sprains tend to resolve in one to two weeks, but grade 3 injuries can take up to twelve weeks to resume normal activities.
How is a broken ankle treated?
Fractures that are nondisplaced, or are still aligned with the other bones, will need a boot or cast to completely immobilize the ankle so that the healing goes as it should. This boot or cast will replace a shoe, rather than be worn inside of a shoe. If the break is displaced, meaning out of alignment, manipulation of the fracture and surgery may be necessary so that the bone realigns and heals properly. Characteristics of a fracture are what dictate the necessity of surgery. As the initial pain and swelling go down and healing has begun, physical therapy is used to regain range of motion and muscle loss during the duration of the injury. Most fractures will heal in six to eight weeks. Also, if the fracture involves the ankle joint, arthritis could develop in the future.
When should I consult a physician?
If you can bear weight on your ankle but the bruising and swelling persist longer than one to two weeks, consult a physician. Additionally, if you cannot bear weight on your ankle at all you should immediately consult your physician.
Dr. Roger Passmore is a board-certified, fellowship-trained orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeon at Advanced Ortho and Spine. He provides a full spectrum of foot and ankle care. Contact us today for more information or to request an appointment.
With two locations near Nashville in Mt. Juliet and Hermitage, Advanced Ortho and Spine provides patients with high-quality, personalized care. We also strive to advance orthopaedic excellence. Contact us today to learn more or to schedule your appointment.
This blog provides general information and discussions about health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.
If you or any other person has a medical concern, you should consult with your healthcare provider or seek other professional medical treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something read on this blog or in any linked materials. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or emergency services immediately.
The opinions and views expressed on this blog and website have no relation to those of any academic, hospital, health practice, or other institution.
Sprain or rupture of ligaments: how to understand?
Joint ligaments are a kind of association of individual connective tissue fibers. They are designed to connect the bone elements of the joint, strengthen it and restrain the range of motion in the joint.
However, injury or sports can cause ligament damage. The most common are ruptures and sprains of the ligaments of the ankle, shoulder, knee and phalanges of the fingers.
A sprain occurs when a ligament is severely stretched under load, which causes damage, but remains intact. This happens most often with sudden movements or falls.
A sprain can cause discomfort but is less severe than a sprain.
Some general symptoms of sprains:
- Unpleasant feeling of tension;
- Moderate pain in the affected area, which may be aggravated by movement;
- Slight swelling (swelling) around the affected area;
- Small hematoma (bruising) that appears within hours or days of injury;
- Minor movement restriction in the affected area.
The symptoms of a sprain can usually come on gradually. In the event of an injury, it is important not to neglect the symptoms and take the necessary measures to speed up recovery. If symptoms worsen and do not disappear within a few days, you should consult a doctor.
Ligament rupture – as the name implies, when the ligament is completely or partially torn. This usually occurs with more serious injuries, such as a strong blow or a fall from a height. A rupture causes severe pain, swelling, bruising, and, in some cases, loss of joint function.
Symptoms of a torn ligament may vary depending on the severity of the injury:
- Sharp pain in the affected area, which may be aggravated by movement;
- Swelling around affected area;
- Hematoma (bruising) appearing within hours or days of injury;
- Restriction of movement in the affected area;
- A crackling, clicking or other sound when the affected area is moved.
When a ligament is torn, there is a sharp pain at the moment of injury, but it may decrease after a few minutes or hours, and then manifest itself with renewed vigor.
How to understand stretched or torn?
Whether a ligament has been sprained or torn can be determined based on the symptoms and severity of the injury. If the injury is mild, and the pain is moderate, tolerable, slight swelling and limited movement in the area of injury, most likely it was a sprain. If the pain is unbearable, large swelling, bruising and loss of joint function, then most likely a ligament rupture has occurred.
An accurate diagnosis will be made by a specialist after an examination and necessary studies: X-ray, MRI or ultrasound.
How to relieve pain
If you suspect you have a sprain or torn ligament, there are several ways to relieve pain and speed up the recovery process:
– Rest the affected area to prevent further damage.
– Apply ice to the injured area for 20-30 minutes every 2-3 hours to reduce swelling and soreness.
– Taking pain relievers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, or nimesil can help manage pain and inflammation.
– Elastic bandage over the affected area to limit movement and reduce stress on the injured ligament.
– Try to keep the injured limb above the level of the trunk to reduce the manifestations of hematoma and edema.
How to treat
Sprain and tear treatment depends on the severity of the injury. Mild sprains may require only activity restriction, ice packs, and pain medication for a few days. However, more severe cases of sprains and torn ligaments may require physical therapy, rehabilitation, and, in some cases, surgery.
It is important to see a specialist to get an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. Incorrect or lack of treatment can lead to prolonged recovery and an increased risk of re-injury.
Read also: how to quickly get rid of calluses on the legs.
Sprains: types, manifestations, first aid
Topic: »» Articles on neurology
Voitsitsky Andrey Anatolievich
neurologist, reflexologist, hirudotherapist
Author of the article
Sprain is a traumatic injury to the ligaments caused by their overextension. Stretching is one of the most common reasons for limiting an active lifestyle and work activities. Ligaments consist of strong connective tissue, attached to the joint, strengthening it and protecting it during physical exertion. When injured, the ligaments are stretched and damaged. Since the ligaments have a large number of nerve endings and small vessels, when they are injured, bruising, swelling and severe pain occur.
A sprain may be accompanied by a partial tear or complete rupture of the ligament. In case of injury, not one, but several ligaments can be damaged. The reason for the sprain is the impact on the ligaments of excessive physical activity, sudden movements in the joint. This problem is very often faced by children, athletes and overly active people. Sprains most often occur in the ligaments of the ankle, elbow and knee joints. The clinical picture of stretching is the appearance of sharp pain, swelling of the joint, discoloration of the skin over the joint. With a complete rupture of the ligament, great mobility, looseness in the joint is determined. The stretch clinic also depends on the degree of damage. With mild to moderate sprain, swelling may not appear immediately – only a slight soreness. Swelling and bruising, as well as restriction of movement in the joint, occur some time later. With a severe injury, complete rupture of the ligament, acute pain is noted, swelling and bruising occur immediately, a further complication is looseness of the joint and frequent sprains. In order to avoid complications after an injury, it is better to immediately consult a doctor.
First aid for sprains
Immobilize the injured joint from the start. To do this, you need to apply a tight bandage from improvised means to the area of the damaged joint. If a rupture is suspected, apply a splint – a plank, a piece of plywood, a ruler, etc.
Place the oedema in cold for two hours. Raise the leg or arm higher to avoid further bleeding under the skin and reduce swelling. If there are anesthetic ointments or gels, be sure to use them. This will reduce pain and swelling. After that, call an ambulance or go to the nearest traumatology department on your own. Correct and timely diagnosis of injuries will help in the effectiveness of treatment and the avoidance of complications and side effects. Do not engage in self-diagnosis and treatment. Only a specialist can determine the nature and severity of the damage. In some cases, injuries require surgical intervention.
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