Have you ever had a misstep or a fall that left your ankle hurting? It’s quite common, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s just a sprain – where the ligaments get stretched – or if it’s a more serious break of the bone. We’re here to clear up the confusion and help you understand the difference between these two types of ankle injuries.

Your ankles play a vital role in keeping you steady and mobile, so any injury to them can be worrisome. A sprained ankle might make you wince in pain, but a broken ankle can be even more painful and may require different treatment. Understanding the distinction between these injuries is essential because the way you care for a sprain is different from how you’d care for a break.

We’ll discuss the causes, symptoms, and complications of each type of injury, giving you the knowledge to recognize what might be going on when you feel that sudden pain or discomfort. By the end, you’ll be better equipped to assess the situation, decide if medical attention is needed, and take the right steps towards recovery. So, let’s take a closer look at these ankle injuries and empower you with the information you need to keep your feet and ankles in their best shape.

Distinguishing Between Sprained and Broken Ankles

Understanding a Broken Ankle

A broken ankle, also known as an ankle fracture, occurs when one or more bones in the ankle joint break. This can involve the tibia, fibula, or both. Fractures can range from simple cracks to more complex breaks that displace the bones. Typically caused by direct trauma, falls, sports-related impacts, or accidents, a broken ankle can result in varying degrees of pain, swelling, and difficulty bearing weight on the affected leg.

Fracture Types: 

Ankle fractures can manifest in diverse forms, including lateral malleolus fractures, medial malleolus fractures, and bimalleolar fractures involving both sides of the ankle. The severity and treatment of the fracture depend on the type and extent of the break.

There is also something called an avulsion fracture that can be common with ankle sprains. An avulsion fracture occurs when a small chunk of bone attached to a tendon or ligament gets pulled away from the main part of the bone. When a patient has a serious inversion ankle sprain for example, it is possible that an avulsion fracture can occur along the 5th metatarsal. This is where peroneus brevis inserts and the tendon can pull off a tiny fragment of bone along the 5th metatarsal.  

This is why we recommend that if you do have an ankle sprain to seek medical advice, as you would not want to miss a possible avulsion fracture.

Understanding a Sprained Ankle

A sprained ankle involves damage to the ligaments that connect bones and stabilize joints. The ligaments around the ankle can stretch or tear due to sudden twisting, rolling, or turning motions. This commonly occurs when the foot lands unevenly, especially on an uneven surface or during physical activities. Unlike a broken bone, where the structural integrity is compromised, a sprain pertains to the integrity of ligaments, which provide stability to the joint.

Differentiating Ligaments and Bones

While a broken ankle involves fractures of bones, a sprained ankle revolves around injury to the ligaments. Understanding this key distinction is vital, as the treatment approaches and recovery timelines differ significantly between the two injuries.

Situations Leading to Ankle Sprains

Ankle sprains often occur during activities that involve sudden changes in direction, pivoting, or landing awkwardly from a jump. Common scenarios include sports-related movements, missteps on uneven surfaces, or accidentally twisting the foot while walking or running. The resulting pain, swelling, and limited range of motion are indicative of a sprained ankle, necessitating a careful evaluation to determine the extent of the injury.

Differentiating Symptoms of Broken Ankles and Sprains

Broken ankles exhibit a set of specific and often intense symptoms that point towards bone fractures. These symptoms include:

  • Severe Pain and Tenderness: A broken ankle typically causes severe pain, particularly when pressure is applied to the affected area. Even a slight movement can trigger sharp discomfort.
  • Swelling and Bruising: Swelling and bruising are common responses to a broken ankle. The injured area often becomes visibly swollen and may show signs of discoloration due to internal bleeding.
  • Inability to Bear Weight: An individual with a broken ankle often finds it nearly impossible to bear weight on the affected leg. The pain and structural instability caused by the fracture hinder normal movement.
  • Deformity or Misalignment: In some cases, a broken ankle can lead to visible deformity or misalignment of the joint. This can be seen as an unusual protrusion or an unnatural angle of the ankle.

These symptoms are direct outcomes of bone fractures, signifying the structural disruption of the ankle’s bones.

broken vs sprained ankle symptoms

Symptoms of a sprained ankle are distinct from those of a broken ankle and are primarily linked to ligament damage. These symptoms include:

  • Mild to Moderate Pain: A sprained ankle usually results in mild to moderate pain. The discomfort is often less severe than that of a broken ankle, and it’s typically concentrated around the affected ligaments.
  • Swelling and Bruising: Similar to a broken ankle, swelling and bruising are common responses to a sprain. Ligament damage triggers the body’s inflammatory response, leading to swelling and potential discoloration.
  • Difficulty Walking but Possible with Pain: While walking may still be feasible with a sprained ankle, it’s accompanied by pain. The discomfort is usually felt when the affected ligaments are stressed during movement.
  • Tenderness over Specific Ligaments: Tenderness over the injured ligaments is a hallmark of a sprained ankle. Touching or applying pressure to these specific areas can elicit discomfort.

Symptoms Overlap and Challenges in Diagnosis

It’s important to note that some symptoms, such as swelling and bruising, overlap between broken and sprained ankles. This similarity in presentation can complicate self-diagnosis and decision-making.

The challenge lies in accurately differentiating between the two based solely on symptoms. Professional medical evaluation is essential for precise diagnosis, as the distinction impacts treatment approaches and recovery strategies. Seeking expert guidance ensures that the appropriate diagnostic tools, such as X-rays, are used to confirm the nature of the injury and guide effective treatment.

Ensuring Accurate Diagnosis and Proper Care

Importance of Professional Medical Evaluation

Seeking timely medical attention is of paramount importance when dealing with ankle injuries. Healthcare providers possess the expertise needed to accurately distinguish between a sprained and a broken ankle. Their experience in diagnosing such injuries ensures that the appropriate steps are taken for effective treatment.

Healthcare professionals use diagnostic tools such as X-rays to confirm the nature of the injury. Incorrect self-diagnosis can lead to inappropriate self-care measures, potentially exacerbating the condition. 

It is important to note that if x-rays are done too soon on a very swollen ankle, the fracture may go undetected.  Your doctor should be able to guide you on when and where to seek imaging. 

Relying on the expertise of medical professionals guarantees an accurate assessment and the most suitable treatment plan. If you are local to Colorado, please visit Total Health Solutions or Kinetic Chiropractic for treatment or if you would like to see a Gait Happens Clinician online, you can book an appointment here.

Prevention and Self-Care Measures

Preventing ankle injuries is a proactive approach to maintaining optimal foot health. Here are some preventive measures to consider:

  • Wearing Appropriate Footwear: If you have concerns or specific requirements, consulting with a clinician, podiatrist or footwear specialist can help you find the most suitable shoes for your needs. You can find our recommendations for footwear here.
  • Proper Warm-up and Stretching: Engaging in appropriate warm-up exercises before physical activity prepares the muscles and ligaments for movement. Stretching can enhance flexibility and reduce the risk of strains.
  • Being Prepared for Risky Activities on Uneven Surfaces:   This means training your body on uneven terrain. Taking walks on even ground.  Being cautious when engaging in activities on uneven or slippery surfaces

Self-care measures play a crucial role in managing ankle injuries and facilitating recovery. Consider the following steps:

  • Following Medical Recommendations: If a medical professional prescribes immobilization or physical therapy, it’s crucial to adhere to these recommendations. Proper immobilization supports healing, while physical therapy aids in restoring strength and flexibility.

By adopting preventive measures and practicing effective self-care, individuals can promote their ankle health and minimize the risk of injuries. In the event of an injury, seeking medical attention promptly ensures accurate diagnosis and appropriate care, ultimately contributing to a smoother recovery process.


In this comprehensive exploration, we’ve delved into the critical distinction between broken and sprained ankles, shedding light on their respective symptoms and the challenges they present. By understanding the unique characteristics of these injuries, individuals can make informed decisions about seeking appropriate care and treatment.

To recap, a broken ankle involves a fracture in the bones, often caused by impactful forces like falls or accidents. On the other hand, a sprained ankle results from ligament damage, usually caused by twisting or overstretching the joint. While some symptoms, such as swelling and bruising, may overlap, distinct indicators like deformity and inability to bear weight set broken ankles apart. These overlapping symptoms can make self-diagnosis challenging, emphasizing the necessity of seeking professional medical evaluation.

ankle pain management

Accurate diagnosis is the linchpin of effective recovery. By consulting healthcare professionals, individuals can ensure that the right steps are taken towards healing. Medical providers possess the expertise and tools to accurately differentiate between sprains and fractures. Incorrect self-diagnosis can lead to improper care, delaying healing and potentially causing further harm.

In light of the importance of health and well-being, we encourage readers to prioritize their foot health. Should you experience any ankle injuries, don’t hesitate to seek professional medical evaluation. The expertise of healthcare providers is invaluable in ensuring accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment. Prompt attention and proper care are pivotal in minimizing pain, expediting recovery, and restoring optimal functionality.

By equipping yourself with knowledge and recognizing the significance of professional guidance, you’re empowering yourself to make the best decisions for your ankle health. Remember, your health is an investment, and accurate diagnosis is the first step towards a full and successful recovery.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the primary distinction between a sprained ankle and a broken ankle?

A sprained ankle involves ligament damage, while a broken ankle is a fracture in the bones. Symptoms and treatments vary for these conditions.

How can I differentiate between symptoms of a sprained versus a broken ankle?

The symptoms of a sprained ankle generally include moderate pain, swelling, and challenges while walking. Conversely, a broken ankle often presents severe pain, deformity, and inability to bear weight.

What are the key signs of a sprained ankle?

Usual symptoms of a sprained ankle encompass swelling, bruising, tenderness over specific ligaments, and mild to moderate pain. Walking is possible but may be uncomfortable.

What are typical indicators of a broken ankle?

Symptoms of a broken ankle include intense pain, considerable swelling, bruising, deformity or misalignment, and the inability to bear weight on the affected foot.

How can I determine whether my ankle is sprained or broken?

Severe pain, deformity, or the inability to bear weight generally suggest a broken ankle. Mild pain and less severe symptoms might point toward a sprain.

Is there an overlap in sprained and broken ankle symptoms?

Yes, symptoms like swelling and bruising can overlap, causing difficulty in identifying the exact injury without professional evaluation.

Is a doctor’s evaluation necessary for either a sprained or broken ankle?

Seeking medical attention is vital for accurate diagnosis and appropriate care. A healthcare professional can conduct tests and imaging for an accurate assessment.

What preventive measures can I take against ankle injuries leading to sprains or breaks?

Preventive steps include wearing proper footwear, warming up before physical activity, and avoiding risky movements on uneven surfaces. Strengthening the ankle with exercises can also aid prevention.

When should I consider professional medical evaluation for my ankle injury?

If severe pain, deformity, inability to bear weight, or significant injury is suspected, consulting a healthcare provider for precise diagnosis and treatment guidance is recommended.

Please note that the answers provided here are for informational purposes only and should not replace professional medical advice. It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and personalized treatment plan based on your specific condition.