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How to Tell Broken Ankle vs Sprain

by Patty Weasler, RN December 22, 2021 0 Comments

Swollen ankle pain

You know you’ve injured your ankle. It’s swollen, bruising, and hurts when you put weight on it. Is it broken or an ankle sprain? The symptoms are very similar, making it hard to know the difference, so we break down a broken vs. sprained ankle here for you; because knowing which ankle injury you have will determine the best course of treatment.

Is My Ankle Broken or Sprained?

The one true way to know requires a trip to the doctors where your doctor will likely order an x-ray of your ankle to visualize the bones. But since you don’t have an x-ray machine sitting in your home and you’re wondering if this is a broken ankle or sprain, here are 2 ways you can judge.

  • A broken bone will be more painful and you might not be able to walk on it right away. Many people do have bruising and swelling but not everyone. 
  • An ankle sprain will be painful and can involve some significant swelling. The degree of pain and swelling will be determined by how severe a sprain it is.

Broken Ankles

An ankle fracture can involve one or more of the many bones that make up the ankle joint. These include the fibula, tibia, and talus bones.   

What to Look for

When you’re evaluating your injured ankle to try and decide if you’ve broken or sprained it there are a few things you can look for to help you decide. The first is what caused the injury. An ankle bone can break with something as simple as a fall or as significant as a car accident. It’s likely that whatever did it was forceful and painful.

Symptoms of a Broken Ankle

Another key thing to evaluate are your symptoms. A few things should clue you into a fractured ankle and they are:

  • Severe pain when you press on your foot
  • Inability to walk on your foot right after the injury or later in the day
  • Bruising or swelling that happens almost immediately
  • You hear a popping sound during the injury
  • Your ankle is malformed
  • Numbness within the foot or ankle

What to Do for a Broken Ankle

If you think you’ve broken your ankle seek medical attention as soon as you can. Your doctor will evaluate your ankle and decide if you need any diagnostic imaging like an x-ray. Until you can get to your doctor the other key things you should do are:

  • Stay off your injured ankle
  • Ice your foot and ankle

Here is an in-depth resource to learn more about broken ankle treatments.

Sprained Ankles

The ankle is stabilized by ligaments. When you move your ankle outside its normal range of motion these ligaments can get injured.

What to Look for

You feel pain after you’ve injured your ankle and now are trying to decide if it’s a sprain. If you felt your ankle turn inward or outward that could have been the cause. Another common cause is miss stepping on a curb or step.

Symptoms of an Ankle Sprain

After you’ve given the cause of your ankle injury some thought it’s time to evaluate your symptoms. Here are the ones you should look out for a sprain:

  • You have pain but can put weight on your ankle
  • Swelling or bruising develops but not immediately
  • Ankle sprains will improve within a few days, a broken ankle will not

Here is a great resource to learn more about sprained ankles.

What to Do

Many times an ankle sprain can be treated at home. Start off treatment with the RICE acronym (rest, ice, compression, elevation) to minimize swelling. To manage the ankle pain you can take an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like ibuprofen. Stay off of your foot as much as you can and let your body rest so that it can heal quickly. You should see improvement within a few days.

How to Treat a Sprained Ankle

Medical Attention for Your Ankle Injury

Ankle sprains and fractures are injuries that need to be evaluated by a doctor. Mild sprains can heal within a few days with minimal treatment. But it can be very difficult to determine if a severe sprain is really a sprain or a fracture. Your doctor will look over the bones of the ankle and likely order an x-ray to get a definitive diagnosis. If it is a sprain, they may suggest going to physical therapy which can help minimize your recovery time.

Here are a few things that you should never ignore, contact your doctor right away if you are experiencing:

  • Severe fractures with bones pushing out of your skin
  • Unable to put weight on your foot
  • Numbness in your foot or ankle
  • Significant bleeding
  • Severe pain

If you’ve been diagnosed with a broken ankle, continue through this guide to help you through the next steps of treatment and towards recovery.

Sources:

https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/ankle-sprain-vs-broken-ankle#1

https://www.carewellurgentcare.com/2019/05/20/ankle-sprain-vs-broken-ankle-how-to-tell-the-difference/

https://www.emedicinehealth.com/ankle_fracture/article_em.htm

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Patty Weasler, RN
Patty Weasler, RN

Patty Weasler is a freelance health writer and nurse. She is certified in critical care nursing and has been practicing for over 10 years. Patty lives in Milwaukee, WI with her husband and three children. She enjoys spending her time with family and educating people about their health.



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