How to Tell if Your Ankle is Broken or Sprained

by | Jul 13, 2018

Breaks and sprains in the lower limbs are both common problems – ones that cause pain and take away your mobility, independence, and ability to do the activities you enjoy. When they happen, you realize how much you depend on your feet and ankles, and it’s only natural for you to want the problem resolved.

A complicating factor in the case of these injuries—and especially when they happen in ankles—is that it can be difficult to know which one you’ve sustained.

To have the injury properly treated, it needs to be accurately diagnosed.

Ankle Pain

Now, many podiatrists are able to easily diagnose certain conditions that seem to be similar, but you should also be able to distinguish between the two. Why is that, though? As a starting point, you may need to provide first aid, in which case you’ll be glad to know which injury you are dealing with.

This makes complete sense because administering first aid is actually a form of problem-solving. And when you have to solve a problem, knowing what’s wrong is the first step:

  1. Understand the problem. This is usually—but not always (as you’ll see)—a matter of getting to the root cause. Identifying the source of the problem is considerably more important than just treating the symptoms.
  2. Create a plan. Once you understand why the problem has developed, you can then determine what needs to be done about it.
  3. Follow the plan. Naturally, a plan only works if it’s followed. An important consideration at this stage is not becoming frustrated and/or giving up if you don’t see results early!

Obviously, these steps are rather general in nature, but let’s get more specific and look at how they apply in the field of medicine.

When you come to see us here at Brook Valley Podiatry, we start by carefully diagnosing the problem – which is a matter of understanding it.

From there, we then create a plan to address it (your customized treatment plan). Whereas we noted that it’s important not to “just” treat the symptoms, part of the care we provide for you will be to manage them. After all, we don’t want you to be in pain and will do everything we can to help you find relief.

At this point, the responsibility shifts a bit to your end. Put simply, you need to follow the plan in order to see results. As you do, be sure to keep in mind the fact that every measure we have you take serves a purpose in your treatment and recovery.

Now let’s take these general steps and apply them to a fairly common situation – an injured ankle.

This particular medical issue has a different element than many other foot and ankle injuries and conditions. That’s the fact that the problem could either be a sprain or a fractured bone. And there’s a chance you won’t be able to easily identify which has happened.


Within the field of podiatry-related issues, there are numerous problems that are easy to identify:

  • If you have a protruding bump at the base of your big toe (which is angling inward), you have a bunion.
  • If you have sharp pain and redness at the corner of a toenail, you have an ingrown nail.
  • If you have pain in the bottom of the heel with your first steps of the morning, you have plantar fasciitis.

Whereas most people can start at the first step of problem-solving by knowing those are the actual problems, not all conditions are so cut-and-dry. One example of this is the fact that some cases of athlete’s foot are thought to be eczema.

Athlete’s foot is a fungal infection. Eczema is inflammation of the skin. So why would there be confusion? Well, it’s because they have similar symptoms (itching, redness, scaly rashes).

This is also the case with ankle sprains and fractures.

With both of these injuries, there is pain, swelling, and it is difficult-to-impossible to walk or put bodyweight on the affected ankle.

In addition to similar symptoms, the injury-causing incidents are also often quite alike. Either case can be caused when an ankle is placed under excessive stress at an unnatural angle – such as during a misplaced step.

Broken Ankle

Landing awkwardly on the outside edge of your foot can either overstretch the ankle’s supporting ligaments or cause a fracture in the bottom end of the fibula (one of the lower leg bones that form the ankle joint). Sometimes, both problems are concurrent.

Despite their inherent commonalities, these are two different injuries.

A fracture obviously happens to a bone, whereas a sprain is a matter of damaged soft tissue (ligaments, as noted).

Even though the symptoms are similar, there are still ways you can potentially distinguish between the two injuries. A major sign as to which injury you’ve sustained is whether or not you are able to put any bodyweight on the affected ankle. It might not be easy, but you likely have sprained your ankle if you can place weight on it shortly after the injury and (very gently) take a couple of steps.

In the event of a broken ankle bone, it will be too painful to walk. The pain will be sharp and intense, and your body will quickly shut down any attempt to take a couple of steps.

Beyond attempting to put weight on the ankle and/or walk around a little, if you press on the injury site without experiencing sharp pain, you’ve likely suffered a sprain and not a fracture.

One more clue as to which injury you have is its response to RICE therapy (rest, ice, compression, and rest). A sprain will usually respond well and pain will start to subside. Do not mistake that for the condition being effectively treated, however. Like we discussed earlier, this is simply a matter of addressing symptoms (and not the actual problem).

Typically, a broken bone will not have the same kind of response to RICE.

Of course, the best way to determine which injury you’ve sustained is to come see us here at Brook Valley Podiatry. If your symptoms do not make it readily apparent, we can use diagnostic imaging technology you will not have at home.

Once we have determined the nature of your condition, we don’t just stop and send you out the door while wishing you the best of luck!

After diagnosing the problem, we will work with you in creating and implementing a customized treatment plan so you can heal (and find relief from the pain until you’ve recovered).

As you would probably expect, the exact nature of your treatment plan will depend on the injury you’ve sustained, its severity, and a variety of other factors that make every patient a unique case.

For more information about how to identify your ankle injury or, even better, to request an appointment so we can diagnose and treat it for you, call us today at (845) 352-7507.

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Spring Valley

263 N Main Street
Spring Valley, NY 10977
P: (845) 352-7507
F: (845) 352-7509

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