You just injured your ankle. You have a lot of pain, but the major question flooding your mind is “How bad is this injury?” Could it be an ankle sprain or could it even be an ankle fracture? Both can cause a significant amount of discomfort, but they result from injuries to different parts of the ankle. They also require different treatments, and delaying medical attention could very well make recovery longer and even more painful.
The ankle consists of the true ankle joint and the subtalar joint. There are three bones within the true ankle joint and two within the subtalar joint plus strong, flexible ligaments that connect the bones and support the movement of the foot.
When an ankle injury occurs, the first step of diagnosis is to determine which part of that system is impacted. The next step is to determine the nature of the ankle injury. The faster you can make those determinations, the faster you can apply the correct treatment and restore your foot to full, pain-free functionality.
Ankle Sprain vs Ankle Fracture – What’s the Difference?
There are two main differences between an ankle sprain and an ankle fracture: the affected part of the ankle and the nature of the ankle injury. Ankle sprains result from overstretching the ligaments that support the ankle joints. They range from minor injuries with stretched ligaments to more severe injuries with potentially torn ligaments.
Ankle fractures are more severe injuries that involve breaks in one of the ankle bones. The fracture can take place in any bone within the subtalar or true ankle joints. Fractures range from small breaks that may allow you to continue walking and recover quickly and more serious breaks that may leave you off your feet for months.
How to Tell if You Have an Ankle Sprain or an Ankle Fracture
The only way to know with certainty if your ankle injury is a fracture or a sprain is to contact a medical provider to have the ankle assessed and properly tested. What you can do on your own is pinpoint what part of the ankle is causing the discomfort and identify all potentially related symptoms.
In general, pain or tenderness directly on the ankle bones is most likely a fracture. Sprains are more commonly felt around the softer tissue surrounding the ankle bones. The following lists will give you a good overview of the symptoms you may experience with both types of ankle injuries.
Ankle Sprain Symptoms
You don’t have to experience all of these symptoms to have a sprained ankle. It’s common to hear a popping sound when the ligaments pull and tear, but that isn’t required for a diagnosis of ankle sprain, either.
- Restricted range of motion
Ankle Fracture Symptoms
One difference between the pain experienced with an ankle fracture and that of an ankle sprain is radiation. The pain from a fracture can radiate up from the ankle toward the knee in some cases. You may also notice some of the following symptoms, though you don’t have to experience them all to have a fractured or broken ankle:
- Pain directly on or around the ankle bone.
- Localized or extended swelling.
- Limited range of motion.
- Inability to walk on the ankle.
- Altered skin color – often bright red.
- Bruising – immediate or delayed.
Symptoms that Require Immediate Medical Attention
It’s a good idea to have all ankle injuries checked by a medical provider as soon as possible, but some symptoms require immediate attention.
- Inability to bear weight on the ankle.
- Bone protruding through the skin.
- Extreme pain that makes you not want to walk at all.
- Pain that gets worse rather than better.
- Numbness or loss of sensation in the ankle or the surrounding area.
Treatment Options for a Sprained Ankle
Mild to moderate sprained ankles tend to start healing within 48 hours if you do two things during that time:
- Rest the ankle.
- Control swelling and pain.
Resting the ankle simply means staying off of the foot as much as possible. Even if you can limp or walk reasonably well, allowing the ankle to rest is essential to start the healing process and avoid stretching the impacted ligaments even more. Within a couple of days, you should start feeling some reduced discomfort. If not, it’s probably time to have our doctor look at the ankle injury to make sure it is a sprain and not a fracture.
To control swelling and pain, you can try the following:
- Over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen.
- Compress in an ACE bandage or other elasticized wrap.
- Cover with an ice pack for 20 minutes, up to 3 times a day.
- Elevation when sitting.
- Soak in cool water for up to 20 minutes.
Treatment Options for a Fractured Ankle
Treatment plans for fractured ankles vary, depending on the location, severity, and other characteristics of the fracture. If the broken bone is not out of place, the best treatment is often a walking boot or possibly a short leg cast. In most cases, you will need to walk as little as possible for a few weeks, possibly longer. Rest is essential to allow the ankle fracture to heal.
Surgery that inserts screws into the ankle is sometimes required if the broken bone is displaced. In some cases, large fractures require the placement of a plate in addition to screws. The goal is to surgically put the bones back in place and hold them together for the long term.
There are many types of ankle fractures. Some will allow you to walk around daily with a boot on while others require strict rest of the leg. If your ankle injury needs consistent rest and you don’t seek treatment right away, you could end up making the fracture larger or otherwise damaging the ankle further.
Get the Care You Need for Your Ankle Injury
The longer you wait to have your ankle injury diagnosed, the more difficult you may find the healing journey. Even if you think it’s just an ankle sprain, our team is here to help you ease the pain and restore full functionality as quickly as possible.
Contact us today to schedule an appointment. We look forward to getting you back on your feet and answering your questions promptly.