Ankle Pain: Is It a Sprain or a Fracture?

It’s happened to all of us. You’re walking along and then one tiny misstep leads to ankle pain. Whether you were hurt while exercising, playing a sport, or just being “less than graceful,” you’re in pain and wondering just how bad your injury is. Could it be sprained or fractured?

How to Tell a Sprain from a Fracture

A sprain means you’ve stretched or torn a tendon or ligament, while a fracture means you’ve broken a bone. Both can be very painful. So how do you know which type of injury you have? Asking yourself these questions can help:

  • Do you have pain around the soft tissue areas, but not over the bone? If so, it’s likely a sprain.
  • Do you have pain over the ankle bone? Are you unable to walk on it? If that’s the case, you probably have a fracture.

When to See a Doctor for an Ankle Injury

Sometimes, you’re just not sure how serious an ankle injury is. If you’re not sure it’s serious enough to see a doctor, watch it for two to four days and use the RICE method:

  • REST. Try to stay off your ankle as much as possible.
  • ICE. Use an ice pack several times a day, 20 minutes on and at least 20 minutes off.
  • COMPRESSION. Use an elastic bandage or walking brace/splint (available at your local drugstore) to stabilize it.
  • ELEVATE. Rest your foot at, or above, the level of your heart as much as possible.

It’s important to not push through the pain. Putting too much stress on an already injured ankle can lead to bigger problems, like arthritis or extensive ligament damage that can cause ongoing ankle weakness.

It’s time to see a doctor if, after two to four days of the RICE protocol, you still have:

  • Bruising or blisters
  • Difficulty putting weight on your foot
  • Significant pain

Get Diagnosed and Treated for Ankle Pain

An MRI and X-ray can show if you’ve broken a bone or torn a ligament, and the extent of the damage. Most ankle injuries, whether they are fractures or sprains, can be treated without surgery. If a fracture does require surgery, your doctor may use a plate and screws on the side of the bone, or a screw or rod inside the bone, to realign the bone fragments and stabilize them as they heal.

Physical therapy is often recommended to help strengthen the ankle to avoid arthritis or chronic ankle instability. Occasionally, a sprain needs surgical intervention to repair issues that may cause chronic ankle instability.

Emory Healthcare

At the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center, our orthopedic specialists are experts at diagnosing and treating foot and ankle injuries. Schedule an appointment to see an Emory specialist today. Call 404-778-3350 or complete our online appointment request form.