If you’ve recently hurt your ankle, you may be concerned that you have a sprained or broken ankle. Distinguishing between them can be difficult and an accurate diagnosis often requires an X-ray or other imagining test.
In this article we’ll look at the differences between a sprain and a broken ankle, and how these injuries are treated.
What does it mean if you have a sprained ankle?
A sprained ankle is an injury to the ligaments of your ankle. Ligaments are dense pieces of connective tissue that hold your ankle bones together and help stabilize your joint.
Sprains usually occur when you suddenly twist your foot and overstretch your ligaments. Most often, the ligaments in the outer part of the foot get sprained. It’s less common to sprain your inner ligaments.
Some potential causes of a sprained ankle include:
- walking or running on an uneven surface
- landing on the side of your foot when running, jumping, or pivoting
- twisting your ankle while falling
- rolling your ankle while walking or running
- having somebody land on your foot while playing sports
Most sprained ankles are minor injuries, but they can range in severity depending on the amount of damage to your ligaments. The severity of an ankle sprain can vary as follows:
- Grade 1 sprain. One or more ligament is overstretched but not torn. You’ll likely be able to move your foot normally after a few days, and it will likely heal within 2 weeks.
- Grade 2 sprain. A ligament is partially torn, and your Podiatrist may be able to feel instability when they move your ankle. It may take 6 to 8 weeks to heal.
- Grade 3 sprain. The ligament is completely torn. It may take 3 to 6 months or longer to regain full strength and mobility.
What’s the difference between sprains and strains?
Many people mix up the terms sprain and strain. However, the two injuries affect different structures in your body.
- A sprain is an injury to a ligament connecting two bones together.
- A strain is an injury to a muscle or a tendon that connects your muscle to the bone. A strain is also known as a pulled muscle or torn muscle.
What does it mean if you have a broken ankle?
A broken ankle — also called an ankle fracture — is when one or more of the bones around your ankle joint breaks.
There are three bones that make up your ankle joint. They include your:
- tibia or shinbone
- fibula, the smaller long bone in your lower leg
- talus, the bone above your heel bone and below your fibula and tibia.
Broken ankles are a relatively common injury. The severity can vary from a hairline fracture to a displaced fracture that requires surgery.
There are many potential causes of a broken ankle, but usually the injury results from a twisting injury. A broken ankle can also be caused by direct impact to the ankle, such as a car accident or a sports-related impact.
If you have a clean break that doesn’t require surgery, you can usually fully heal within 6 to 8 weeks. If you need surgery, it may take anywhere from 12 weeks to 2 years to regain full function of your ankle.
How can you tell the difference between a broken ankle and a sprained ankle?
The symptoms of a broken and sprained ankle are similar, and the injuries can be difficult to tell apart, especially in cases of serious injuries that involve a lot of swelling. It’s also possible to have both a sprain and a fracture.
Sprained ankle symptoms
- restricted range of motion
- popping sensation
Broken ankle symptoms
- immediate sharp pain (often more painful than a sprain)
- a visible deformity (especially if your ankle is also dislocated)
- trouble bearing weight on your foot
Asking yourself the following questions may help you narrow down what type of injury you have.
However, you should still have a medical professional examine your ankle even if you think you know what type of injury you have.
What does a diagnosis involve?
It’s important to get medical attention if you think you may have broken your ankle, or if you have severe pain, swelling, or bruising after injuring your ankle.
Your Podiatrist will carefully examine your ankle, foot, and lower part of your leg. They’ll also check for tenderness and move your foot to get an idea of how well you can move your ankle joint.
If your injury is more severe, your Podiatrist may recommend one or more of the following imaging tests to help them accurately diagnose your injury:
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