The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Sprained Ankle or Broken Ankle?

Posted by on Monday, April 30th, 2012


The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons says that about 25,000 people every day sprain an ankle. Considering my own experience with missteps, twists, rolls and trips, I find this stat completely unsurprising. It is amazingly easy to do nutty things to your ankles.

If you just kind of bend your ankle, experience a little bit of an “Oww” and then go on, maybe with a few careful steps, then fine. It gets sticky, though, when your ankle is swollen and seriously hurts. Then you might find yourself asking one of life’s great questions: “Is this sprained…or broken?!”

Excellent questions! First let’s clarify the actual textbook difference between the two: a sprained ankle is a strain of the ligaments that connect bones; a broken, or fractured, ankle is when the bones themselves are damaged. Keep in mind, though, that if you break your ankle, you may also damage some ligaments along the way.

Now, order in the court ! Let’s do a cross-examination to determine which injury you have.

What happened? If you answer something like, “I took a bad step and twisted my ankle or rolled my ankle,” chances are you have a sprain. If you answer, “I tripped and fell, or dropped a rock on my ankle,” then you probably have a broken ankle.

Did you hear any sounds? If you answer, “I could have sworn I heard a kind of  popping sound,” you have a sprain. If you answer, “I thought I heard a cracking sound,” then you probably have a fracture. If you answer, “I couldn’t hear anything beyond my shrieks of pain,” then that probably is also another sign that you have a fracture.

Is it swollen? If you answer “Yes,” then, um….you have some kind of ankle injury.

Is it swollen, but also lumpy or crooked? If you answer “Yes,” then you probably have a fracture.

Do you have any numbness in the area of the ankle? If you answer yes, then again, that’s saying, “Fracture!”

Can you put any weight on it? If you answer in a very annoyed tone, “Yes, I can, but it hurts!!” then you probably have a sprain. If you try to put weight on it and your answer is “Oww!! Owww!!” followed by a collapse to the ground, then you probably have a fracture.

That last question seems like it should clear everything up, but sometimes a severe sprain can be so painful that it puts you in hesitation mode: “Is this a bad sprain or a break?” Moreover, high ankle sprains also make it difficult to put weight on your foot; the main difference there is that the pain with a broken ankle is more localized and there’s likely to be swelling and perhaps bruising, while high ankle sprains often don’t look bad. They just feel bad.

In the end, if you’re not sure, the best thing to do is see a podiatrist at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900) to get a clear diagnosis, probably by having some x-rays done. I know, no one wants to go to a doctor if they don’t have to, especially if you’re asking yourself the “broken or sprained” question late at night or while you’re on vacation and your only option is a long wait in an emergency room. But if you don’t have a correct diagnosis and you let an injury linger without the right treatment you’re going to create more trouble for yourself than if you just had it checked out in the first place; trying to patch it up yourself with some duct tape and paper clips may seem like a good idea, but trust me, it’s not. Besides, if you’re teetering on the edge of, “Yes, it hurts when I put weight on it, but I still am putting weight on it,” then even if it isn’t broken, you probably have a sprain that is so bad you’ll need some kind of treatment, whether it’s a brace, crutches, or potentially physical therapy down the road. Sprained ankles are an injury that people may shrug off, but they can get complicated. So get that ankle checked out!

If you have a foot or ankle injury, but aren’t sure what to do about it, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet.




If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.