How to Tell the Difference Between a Sprain and a Broken Bone

Oct 15, 2020

There are some things you are expected to know the difference between. Coke and Diet Coke, for example, or your child and every other similarly sized human who is not your child.

When it comes to a bad ankle sprain and a broken bone, however, it can be more difficult to discern the difference than you might expect.

And of course, if one of these injuries just happened to you, you are certainly not in the best position to make a patient and well-considered analysis!

Knowing the difference between an ankle sprain and a fracture can be helpful in certain ways, and we will be going over some tips for how you might be able to tell if you likely have one or the other. However, it is important not to miss the forest for the trees here.

a doctor wrapping a patient's foot in a cast

You Don’t Need to Know What A Foot or Ankle Injury Is to Know You Need Help

You are not a podiatric expert, and you are not expected to be. But you are expected to get help for an injury when you need it.

If an injury is so bad that you are having trouble figuring out whether it’s a bad sprain or a full-on break, then you definitely need help. 

Your reaction to either situation should be the same: Stop what you’re doing immediately, take weight off the affected leg, and contact us right away! You don’t have to tell us exactly what it is; it’s our job to tell you. 

Regardless of the condition, it will clearly require proper treatment. A sprain is not “less troublesome” than a fracture – at least not in all cases. If either one doesn’t heal correctly, it can cause lasting problems down the road. This may mean chronic pain, ankle instability, or even arthritis.

So with that cleared up, let’s actually dive into ways you might be able to tell a fracture from a sprain.

Differences between a Fracture and an Ankle Sprain

Before going any further, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with what these injuries comprise.

  • A fracture is a broken bone. The break can take several different forms, ranging from a simple split in the bone to the broken pieces shifting out of alignment, or even the bone shattering into multiple pieces.
  • A sprain is an injury to the ligaments, the bands of tissue that connect bone to bone and often add control and stability to joints.
diagram explaining the types of ankle sprains

Both can happen when the ankle experiences a sharp or intense twist. Heavy impacts are more likely to result in a fracture, however.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can help you narrow down what your injury might be. These are not guarantees, but very good information to take note of for when you talk with us.

  • Did you hear a noise at the time of the injury? If you heard a distinctive “pop,” the injury is more likely a sprain. If you heard a “crack” instead, the injury is more likely a fracture. A noise does not necessarily need to be heard to indicate either injury, though. Some people will report “feeling” a pop, which also tends to lean toward a sprain.
  • Where are you feeling the pain? A fracture is centered, of course, on the bone, while a sprain will be centered around the ligaments, muscles, and other soft tissues. In other words, if the pain is directly over the ankle bone, it is more likely a fracture. If it is centered in the softer part of your ankle, it is more likely a sprain. (it should be noted that swelling and bruising also tend to be most prominent in the area of the most intense pain.)
  • Is the pain worse when you try to move or put pressure on the limb? This is more typical of a fracture. That said, avoid moving or putting weight on the limb as much as possible, regardless of how painful it may or may not feel – you can still cause further injury this way.
  • Does your ankle look strangely shaped or deformed? Both a sprain and a fracture can cause swelling. That is normal. However, if you see a misshapenness that seems to be more distinct and goes beyond swelling, that can be a sign of a shifted broken bone.
  • Do you feel numbness or tingling? If you do, that tends to be more typical of a fracture – and you should tell us about it as soon as possible.

Expert Foot and Ankle Help When You Need it Most

Remember: no matter which of the above symptoms may apply to you or not, do not try to “walk it off” or ignore the problem. Stop activity, get off your injured leg, and give us a call. We will quickly get to the cause of your injury (perhaps requiring an imaging test to confirm the diagnosis and ensure there isn’t more than one type of injury), then recommend the best course of treatment for your needs.

Call our closest office to tell us what happened and schedule an appointment. We will see you as soon as possible, as necessary.

Oklahoma City – (405) 947-8041

Enid – (580) 237-3338

Oklahoma City

3330 NW 56th Street Suite 600
Oklahoma City, OK 73112

Phone: (405) 947-8041

Office Hours:


524 North Van Buren Street
Enid, OK 73703

Phone: 580-237-3338
Fax: 580-237-3399


Saturday – Sunday: Closed