Broken vs. Sprained Ankle: How To Tell the Difference

Woman grimacing while she takes off her shoes while sitting down

The ankles are extremely sensitive parts of the body. Two of the most common injuries in the U.S. are ankle breaks and sprains — up to five million people are treated for these injuries yearly. Often, sprains and cracks can appear the same. That’s why it’s crucial to seek a professional diagnosis as soon as possible.

Treating a sprain or fracture can prevent complications and get you back on your feet faster. Here’s how to tell the difference between a broken and sprained ankle.


Broken vs. Sprained Ankle

When you’re experiencing ankle pain and swelling or have trouble putting weight on it, you likely have a sprain or break. Both injuries can keep you off your feet for some time, and it’s crucial to know the one you have to get proper treatment. Sprains and fractures share similar symptoms but have a few key differences.

An ankle break or fracture occurs when one of the three bones in your ankle is broken or damaged. Depending on the severity, symptoms can vary. If you have a small break, you might not notice the difference. In contrast, multiple broken bones in the ankle can be extremely painful and require prompt medical assistance.

While a fracture is classified as damage to the bones, a sprain is defined as damage to the ligaments. The ligaments are strong bands of tissue and muscle that keep the joints stable while allowing them to move. You might have a mildly twisted ankle if any of these ligaments become injured. However, multiple damaged ligaments or tears can become severe and require surgery.

Determining a sprain or structure without a professional diagnosis can be challenging, but you may be able to follow a few tips to figure it out. The following might accompany broken ankles:

  • Noise when the injury occurred
  • The ankle is directed at an odd angle or appears different than usual
  • Numbness accompanied by pain
  • Pain significantly worsens over time


Often, the only way to determine the type of injury you have is by allowing a podiatrist to examine and X-ray the ankle to determine the source of the pain.


How to Tell if You Have a Sprained Ankle



Sprained ankles often occur from rolling, twisting or turning the ankle awkwardly. This can stretch or tear the ligaments holding your ankle bones together, forcing them beyond their normal range of motion. Most sprained ankles are injuries to the ligaments on the outer side of the ankle. Risk factors that increase your risk of a sprained ankle include walking on uneven surfaces, a prior ankle injury, improper shoes and sports participation.

Sprained ankle signs and symptoms can depend on the severity of the injury. They may include:

  • Popping sensation at the time of injury.
  • Pain, especially when placing weight on the affected foot.
  • Limited range of motion.
  • Swelling.
  • Tenderness when touching the ankle.
  • Bruising.


You should call your doctor if you have pain and swelling in the ankle. If the signs and symptoms are severe, you might have damaged a ligament significantly. Without treatment, ankle sprains can lead to chronic pain, joint instability and arthritis in the ankle joint.


How to Treat a Sprained Ankle

Treatment for a sprained ankle will depend on the severity of your injury. While some injuries might only require self-care measures and over-the-counter medications, a medical evaluation is crucial to reveal the extent of the damage and properly treat it.

Treatment methods can include:

  • Wearing a brace to support the ankle.
  • Using a crutch to keep weight off the joint.
  • Protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation (PRICE) method.
  • Physical therapy to strengthen the joint and restore the ankle’s range of motion.


When you implement the PRICE method, most ankle sprains require four to six weeks to heal. It’s crucial that you stay off your ankle until it is fully healed to prevent your condition from worsening or injuring it again. While rare, reconstruction surgery may sometimes be necessary to treat a sprained ankle and repair torn ligaments.


How to Tell if Your Ankle Is Broken

A broken ankle is caused by stressing the bones of the ankle beyond its abilities. You can experience a fractured ankle by twisting or rolling it from a misstep or fall or a direct trauma caused by a more severe accident. The severity of a broken ankle varies from tiny cracks in the bones to breaks that pierce the skin. Many ankle breaks are accompanied by ankle sprains.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain.
  • Swelling.
  • Numbness or inability to move toes.
  • Bruising.
  • Noticeable deformities of the bones around the ankle.


While possible in cases of less severe fractures, you should not walk on a broken ankle. Doing so can worsen the injury and lead to further complications. If you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s crucial that you contact a doctor who can order an X-ray if necessary and administer proper treatment. Without treatment, broken ankles can lead to complications like arthritis, bone infection and nerve or blood vessel damage.


How to Treat a Broken Ankle

For ankle fractures, it’s vital that you receive treatment right away. Often, professionals must stabilize the ankle to avoid further damage to surrounding tissue, muscle and ligaments. Treatment for a broken ankle will depend on the injury’s location and the fracture’s severity. Treatments might include:

  • Implementing the PRICE method.
  • Taping or wrapping less severe fractures.
  • Casting booting for severe breaks.
  • Using a crutch to keep your weight off the joint.
  • Physical therapy to strengthen the joint and restore the ankle’s range of motion.


Stabilization can include a cast, walking boots and crutches. Severe fractures might require surgery to implant rods, plates or screws to realign the bones for healing. Arthroscopic surgery might also remove fragments of broken bone from the affected area. If your injury requires surgery, it can take up to two years until your ankle returns to normal. If you do not require surgery, a broken ankle can often heal within 12 to 16 weeks.


Contact Foot & Ankle Surgical Associates



Determining the difference between a broken vs. sprained ankle can be challenging. That’s why seeing a qualified podiatrist for an official diagnosis is crucial. At Foot & Ankle Surgical Associates, we can evaluate your symptoms and find the cause of the pain. Our specialists will determine whether your ankle is broken or sprained and the severity of the injury through a physical exam and X-rays. From there, we can determine the proper course of treatment to help you heal and get back on your feet.

For a consultation, call us at 360.754.3338 or fill out a form today.


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