Skip to content
5 min read

A Sprain vs. Break: How to Tell the Difference

Featured Image

Sprains, strains, and broken bones are all painful injuries that can happen to anyone. But how can you tell which one you’re suffering from following an accident, sports injury, or overuse pain?

Since the course of treatment will vary depending on what’s happening with your body, it’s important to understand the difference between a sprain vs. break and know when to seek medical care for what you’re experiencing.

What Is a Sprain?

A sprain is an injury to the ligaments, whether those ligaments are torn or stretched. Sprains differ from strains, which are an injury to the muscle or tendons. Neither is worse than the other, and both can cause quite a bit of pain.

So how can you tell whether your injury is a sprain or a broken bone?

Runner with an ankle bone injury

Sprain vs. Break: Which Is Which?

A fracture, or broken bone, isn’t always as obvious as you may think. You may assume you’ve suffered a sprain because you’re still able to put some weight on the limb. But depending on the severity of the break, a broken limb may still be able to bear weight. It’ll just hurt quite a bit.

There are a few differences to look for when determining whether you’ve suffered a sprain vs. break.

It could be a sprain if:

  • You feel pain around the affected region, and that pain is limited to soft areas, like the tissue around your ankle.
  • You’re starting to see some swelling around the sprain.
  • You see some bruising around the affected area.
  • You’re able to move the affected limb and still walk on a sprain, but in a limited capacity and with some pain.

swollen and bruised foot after an injury

It could be a break if:

  • You heard a crack at the time of the break. Most sprains happen silently or with a pop sound if they’re severe.
  • You can hear a crunching sound when you press down on the affected area. This is called crepitus.
  • You begin to see large, deep bruises forming and discoloration at the affected area.
  • You feel numbness or tingling and pain when pressure or movement is applied to the break.

It’s definitely a break if:

  • You’re not able to move the affected limb.
  • There is a visible deformity in the limb.
  • You can see the broken bone through the skin.

Doctor showing a child an x-ray of his fractured bone

Treatments for Sprains & Breaks

The RICE method, rest, ice, compression, elevation, is a common treatment immediately following a potential sprain. Over-the-counter pain medications can help relieve immediate pain symptoms and reduce swelling. It is important to note that while this method is useful with mild sprains, a sprain can become a fracture without the appropriate care, so it’s essential to follow up with a doctor regardless.

RICE method steps

The ankle is the most common part of the body affected by sprains. Sprained ankle treatments will depend on the severity of the injury but can often include some physical therapy to regain complete control over the injured ligament. Most sprains are treatable without surgery, although urgent care for a sprain may be considered in cases of ligaments that have been torn completely.

If you’ve suffered a fracture, the first course of action will be immobilization of the affected area. Depending on the broken bone and the severity of the break, your doctor will place you in a splint or a cast for stabilization.

ankle injury treatments

How long does it take a broken bone to heal?

The general rule of thumb is that most fractures will heal within 6-8 weeks from the time of the injury. However, that time can vary depending on the severity of the fracture, the type of bone broken, and your overall health.

In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary to allow for proper healing.

Doctor examining a cast after a broken ankle

When to See a Doctor for a Sprain or Break

If you believe you have a sprain, you should still follow up with a doctor after taking steps to alleviate your pain. A doctor will be able to make sure that you don’t need to immobilize the area and recommend the best course of treatment for you to prevent long-term damage.

If you believe you’ve suffered a fracture, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

An urgent care doctor for a broken bone in Los Angeles will be able to handle many types of fractures, with X-rays and splints available to diagnose and treat your injury. If your pain is severe, you’ve broken a large bone or suffered a skull fracture or bone break anywhere near your eyes; an emergency room is more appropriate.

If you’re just unable to tell whether what you’ve experienced is a sprain or break, book your appointment online to talk to the health experts at Reliant, whether that means virtually or with an in-person visit. We can offer advice on the next steps, including providing you with imaging that will rule out a fracture in the office and recommend a treatment plan that will get you back on your feet.