What Happened to My Ankle? How to Tell the Difference Between a Break and a Sprain

With the warm weather enticing you to join the outdoors and frolic through summer, injuries are bound to happen, even to your unsuspecting ankles. From seasonal sports to harmless gardening, an ankle injury can emerge from any number of situations, including:

  • A motor vehicle accident
  • Tripping over something or falling awkwardly
  • Twisting, rolling or rotating the ankle in an uncomfortable way

When an unsuspecting ankle injury occurs, knowing what kind of ankle injury will play a pivotal role in getting you back on your feet. To determine whether your ankle is broken/fractured or sprained depends upon whether you damaged the bone or the tissue. Let’s decipher how to tell the two apart…

Sprain Versus Fracture

Ankle Sprain: When a sprain occurs, one or more of the ligaments in the ankle become severely overstretched or even torn. (A ligament is a fibrous tissue that helps hold the ankle together.) 

Ankle Fracture: A fracture is a break in a bone. With regards to the ankle, the bones that make up the top ankle joint are typically the most prone to fracture. These include the shinbone (tibia), the anklebone (talus) and the bone of the lower leg (fibula). 

With definitions in tow, determining which ankle injury you’ve suffered can be tricky at best. Here are a couple of questions to consider after injury has occurred:

  • Does the pain seem to radiate from the soft tissues surrounding the ankle but not over the bone? It’s probably a sprain.
  • Is the pain over the anklebone? That may be an indication of a break.
  • Are you unable to put pressure on it or walk? It is possible that the ankle is broken.

If the injury is still unclear or if you are hesitant to rush to the doctor, it may not hurt to carefully observe and lightly treat the injury utilizing the R.I.C.E. method of treatment and assessment:

  • Rest the ankle
  • Ice the ankle to reduce swelling and pain
  • Compress the ankle with an air cast or bandage wrap to stabilize and immobilize the ankle
  • Elevate the ankle until it’s level with the heart to help decrease pain and swelling

If, after two to four days of the R.I.C.E. method, you still have a hard time moving or putting pressure on the ankle, a visit to an orthopedist is in order. This is also true if dark blisters or bruises have developed. Once the orthopedist diagnoses the injury, treatment can begin.

Treatment for a Sprained Ankle

Treatment for a sprained ankle depends on the severity of the injury, which can be graded as mild (Grade I), moderate (Grade II) or severe (Grade III):

  • Mild sprains are typically healed utilizing the R.I.C.E. method combined with range of motion, strengthening and stretching exercises.
  • Moderate sprains are also treated with the R.I.C.E. method, but for a longer period of time. A physician may use a soft cast or a splint to immobilize the ankle and prescribe range of motion, strengthening and stretching exercises. Physical therapy may also be suggested to restore full motion and use of the ankle.
  • Severe sprains are a full tear or rupture of a ligament. When this occurs, the ankle must be fully immobilized and requires a longer period of physical therapy. In some cases, surgery may be required to repair the tear.

Treatment for a Broken Ankle

Fractures may be treated surgically or non-surgically depending on the injury. If the ankle is stable, only one bone is broken and the bones aren’t out of place, the ankle may simply be immobilized with a splint or cast.

However, if the ankle is unstable, surgery is required to reinforce it. During the procedure, a metal plate and screws are used to hold the bones in place. Then, the ankle is positioned in a splint. Once the swelling goes down, a cast is utilized for several weeks as the ankle heals.

It is important to remember that, regardless of whether you suspect a sprain or a break, if often requires an orthopedist to accurately diagnose your condition.


Comprehensive Ankle Care 

At NEOSM, our physicians have years of experience in effectively treating all orthopedic conditions and injuries, including those of the foot and ankle. Our multidisciplinary approach to care ensures that patients receive the customized treatment they need to get moving again.

For more information on ankle injury or to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists, contact NEOSM today.