The ankle is a large and complicated joint made up of three bones: the tibia (shin bone), fibula (smaller inner bone) and talus (bone that sits between the tibia and foot) that allow the foot to move up-and-down and side-to-side. All these moving parts make it one of the most commonly injured parts of the human body, with over 2 million ankle sprains and approximately 187 fractures per 100,000 people each year in the United States.
Even the most sure-footed among us can be caught off guard or lose their balance sometimes. But how can you tell a sprained ankle vs. broken ankle?
Sprained ankle vs. broken ankle
A sprain is a stretch or tear in a ligament. Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones at the joint. Ligaments appear as crisscross bands that attach to bones and help stabilize joints. Mild to moderate sprains typically take 3-8 weeks to fully heal. More severe sprains may take a few months to fully heal and regain full mobility.
A broken or fractured ankle occurs when one or more bones in your ankle break. Ankle breaks are commonly caused by falls, high-impact sports, car accidents or injuries that place excessive force on the ankle. Treatment protocols and recovery times largely depend on the location and severity of the break and may include immobilization with a cast for several weeks and surgery to repair the broken bones.
How can you tell the difference?
To help answer the question “Is my ankle sprained or broken?”, you must first ask a few questions:
- Did you hear a noise when the injury happened? Oftentimes, a sprain will happen silently, or with a popping sound in severe cases. With a fracture, there might be an audible crack.
- Is your ankle misshapen? While swelling is a symptom of both sprains and fractures, if your ankle looks out of alignment, it’s most likely because the bone is broken.
- Are you experiencing numbness? Sprains are painful, but fractures are often accompanied by numbness or tingling.
- Where are you experiencing pain? If your ankle hurts or is tender to the touch directly over the ankle bone, you probably have a fracture. By contrast, if the pain is in the soft part of the ankle, it’s more likely a sprain.
Treatment for a sprain
Most mild to moderate sprains can be safely treated at home through a combination of rest, ice, compression and elevation. You may also take anti-inflammatory medications like over-the-counter ibuprofen or naproxen. However, it’s important to visit the nearest urgent care center if you are experiencing one or more of the following symptoms:
- Severe swelling, bruising, discoloration or pain
- Numbness at or near the affected joint
- Immobility of the affected joint
- An inability to put weight on the affected joint
Treatment for a fracture
If you think your ankle is broken, you should get medical treatment right away. After an initial examination and diagnosis, your doctor will likely need to immobilize the ankle with a cast, which could mean crutches or a knee scooter. If the broken bones are misaligned, your doctor may first need to realign them through closed reduction or surgery.
Struggling to tell the difference between a sprained ankle vs. broken ankle? Though these injuries are quite different, each can cause significant pain and may require treatment. If you’ve sustained an ankle injury of any kind and are unable to put weight on the affected foot, you may have a severely sprained or fractured ankle. Visit the specialists at State Urgent Care for immediate medical attention. We are open for walk-in appointments 7 days a week, 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.