When an ankle injury occurs, knowing the difference between an ankle sprain and ankle fracture is an important part of treatment and recovery.
The ankle plays a big role in supporting your functional movements, whether you’re walking, running, jumping, or simply standing around and shifting your weight. That said, it’s not surprising that several million Americans suffer from sprained or broken ankles each year–with some individuals requiring extensive medical treatment to regain their mobility.
Because ankle sprain and ankle break symptoms are quite similar, it’s easy to be unsure how to go about treatment. But rather than ignoring the injury and thinking “it’s just a little sprain,” seeking immediate medical care is often the best decision you can make.
At Essex Union Podiatry, our experienced team of providers is here to help you develop a diagnosis and treatment plan that will get you back to regular activities sooner rather than later. If you have a non-life-threatening injury to your ankle and need treatment, contact one of our professionals today and book an appointment.
Additionally, please continue reading to learn the difference between an ankle sprain and ankle break as well as what to do if you or someone you know suffers an injury.
What Is An Ankle Sprain?
An ankle sprain happens when the connective tissues (ligaments) between the ankle bones get damaged. The severity of the sprain depends on how many ligaments are involved and whether the ligaments are stretched or torn. Most ankle sprains are classified as the following:
• Grade 1 (mild)-Some damage to ligament fibers from stretching or slight tearing. Some pain with walking.
• Grade 2 (moderate)-Partial ligament tear. Walking is moderately painful.
• Grade 3 (severe)-Complete ligament tear or rupture. Walking is difficult to impossible due to severe pain.
What Is An Ankle Break?
An ankle break involves one or a combination of the three bones that meet at your ankle–the tibia, fibula, and talus. Many times, this sort of injury results from twisting the ankle, falling, or excessive force put on the ankle. Varying from a small chip or crack to a complete break or shattering, an ankle break sometimes even results in damaged ligaments too.
If the bone or bones are still aligned, the break is considered nondisplaced; if misaligned, it’s known as displaced.
Is It a Sprained Ankle or Broken Ankle?
After an ankle injury, most people will notice swelling and tenderness in the joint along with bruising and trouble walking. Here are common symptoms that will help determine whether it’s a sprain or a break:
• Ankle Sprain Symptoms
• Feeling of instability
• Trouble with weight bearing
• Moderate swelling and bruising
• Mild to moderate pain
• Ankle Break Symptoms
• Inability to bear weight on injured leg
• Significant swelling and bruising
• Moderate to severe pain
• Ankle won’t straighten and looks deformed
• Some additional things to consider in relation to sprains and breaks:
- If a noise or popping occurred with the injury, suspect an ankle break
- If the ankle stays straight, it’s more likely a sprain than a break. A malformed ankle often ends up diagnosed as a break.
- If pain continues to worsen over time, it’s more likely to be an ankle break.
Treatment For an Ankle Sprain
When a sprain occurs, the R.I.C.E. method can be beneficial in the first 24-48 hours to help ease pain and swelling; this stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Some individuals also find it helpful to take an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
A Grade 1 ankle sprain generally improves on its own in several weeks while a Grade 2 or 3 sprain often requires a period of immobilization to reduce pain and swelling. In rare cases, an ankle sprain will need surgery depending on the extent of the ligaments torn. Expect six to 12 weeks of healing time for Grade 2 and 3 sprains.
Regardless of the sprain’s grade, adding physical therapy to a treatment regimen is a good way to regain muscle stability and mobility over time.
Treatment For an Ankle Break
An ankle break should be treated immediately to stabilize the ankle and keep the bones from damaging surrounding tissue. In most cases, if the break is nondisplaced (bones aligned), a cast or boot will help immobilize the ankle so it can heal. A displaced break (bones not aligned) will require the break to be manipulated manually or through surgery in order to set the bone or bones for healing. An injury that crushes bone will require surgery.
After the break has healed adequately, adding physical therapy to a treatment regimen will help with muscle strength and mobility.
When Is It Time to See a Physician?
With an ankle break, sometimes it’s just obvious that it’s time for an emergency room or physician visit, especially if you can’t walk even four steps or if the ankle is causing extreme pain. Don’t wait to get medical assistance if the injury is severe because an untreated break could result in additional damage to the ankle area.
If you think it’s a sprain but pain and swelling persist after a week or so, it’s a good idea to see a physician and get x-rays to check for a break. If the ankle is not broken, there may be ligaments torn, which may require additional tests and scans to diagnose.
What If the Ankle Sprain or Ankle Break Does Not Get Treated?
With the exception of a mild sprain, it’s important to seek medical care for a suspected sprain or break. Left untreated, an ankle injury can result in:
- Chronic instability
- Changes in gait
- Recurrent ankle strains and sprains
- Long-term difficulties with walking and range of motion
Ankle Injury FAQs
Can I walk on a broken ankle?
In some situations, an individual will walk on a broken ankle not realizing it’s actually a break; this can occur with a stress fracture in particular. But you know your body best, and if you suspect a break, don’t walk on the injured ankle because it can cause further damage to surrounding tissues.
Does soaking an ankle sprain or ankle break in warm or hot water help?
No, this is a common myth. Heat promotes blood flow and can cause swelling and pressure on your nerves. In this regard, don’t use heated water or any kind of heat on the injured ankle.
I sprained my ankle. When can I return to my favorite sport?
You should be able to return to your sport once your pain and mobility issues have resolved.Once you have recovered, try completing each activity in the “Rule of 20s” test:
- Run 20 yards
- Hop on the affected leg 20 times
- Balance on the affected leg with your eyes closed for 20 seconds
- Cut 20 times
If you can complete these activities without any pain, it’s probably okay to try your sport again, but always make sure to consult your physician first.
Treat Your Ankle Injury at Essex Union Podiatry
Whether you’ve experienced a sports-related injury, accident, or work-related incident involving your ankle or foot, our board-certified physicians at Essex Union Podiatry are here to assist you with decades of professional trauma care experience and state-of-the-art technology.
Make your appointment at one of our New Jersey Podiatric Trauma Centers using our online booking system, or call us at 973-559-2727 for more information.