How to Tell the Difference Between a Sprain or Broken Ankle

Do I have a Sprain or Broken Ankle?

Ankle injuries are one of the most common injuries in sports and everyday activities, however it can be difficult to tell if you have a sprain or broken ankle. The quick answer is the difference between a sprain and broken ankle is the presence of a fracture, chip or crack in the bones. This fracture in the ankle can be seen with the use of an x-ray.  To learn more about the foot and ankle, please read this ARTICLE.

Illustration with arrows showing how an ankle sprain can occur. JOI Rehabsprain or broken ankle

Broken or Fractured Ankle

A broken ankle involves fracturing one of the bones that makes up the joint. 

These bones include:

  • The tibia (main lower leg bone)
  • The fibula (smaller lower leg bone)
  • The talus (top of the ankle joint)

Fractures typically occur as a result of: 

  • Severe force to the joint                                                    
  • Rolling the ankle on the side, or extreme flexing
  • Extension of the joint.

Sprain or Broken AnkleImage of Ankle Anatomy

Broken or Fractured Ankle Symptoms

  • Pain (sharp in nature)
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty walking or weight bearing
  • Bruising or discoloration
  • Obvious deformities of the bones
  • You hear a popping noise

Examination by a Physician

In order to make an a proper diagnosis between a sprained or broken ankle. First, an exam with a physician is needed.  Next, The physician will do a physical exam on the injured ankle as well as examining the x-rays. The physical exam will determine the amount of laxity of the ligaments of the ankle.  Sometimes other diagnostic tests are needed to assist in the diagnosis of the injury.

Sprain or Sprained Ankle

A sprain of the ankle involves the ligaments. They are located in the lateral or medial aspects of the ankle joint.  A lateral ankle sprain is more common and the severity is measured by three grades.  A mild sprain or first degree, a moderate sprain or second degree and a severe sprain or third degree.  The amount of laxity determines the grade of the sprain.  A severely sprained ankle and fractured ankle symptoms can be similar.

A sprained ankle involves injury to the ligaments within the ankle. JOI RehabSprained Ankle Illustration

A sprained ankle involves stretching or tearing one or more of the ligaments surrounding the ankle joint. The ligaments of the ankle attach bone to bone and provide stability. The severity of the sprain will lead to different treatment paths.

Ankle Sprain Symptoms

  • Swelling
  • Pain (sharp in nature)
  • Discoloration
  • May appear deformed because of swelling
  • Walking or weight bearing will be difficult 

It should be noted that you should not try to ambulate or walk on either a suspected broken or badly sprained ankle.  You should use the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) technique and seek out a medical orthopedic evaluation.

The key to knowing which injury you have is to get evaluated by a physician.  The physician may use an x-ray or other diagnostic test to differentiate between a broken or sprained ankle.

If you want to learn more about ankle sprains, please watch this Ankle Sprain Video.

A broken or fractured ankle requires medical attention for diagnosis and treatment.  The Jacksonville Orthopaedic Institute has board certified orthopedic physicians who can help.  

Please read these related articles:

By: Jared Ernest, PT

How To Treat Ankle Pain With JOI Physical Therapy

When treating patients for ankle pain, JOI Rehab clinicians will commonly focus on range-of-motion with active and passive mobility exercises. Another form of therapy is strength training. This will help with stability of the ankle. Balance position sense is another key factor in treating ankle pain and preventing patients from losing their sense of balance due to ankle injuries. Different pairs of shoes may also help with healing ankle pains. 

JOI Physicians Offer ASAP Fracture Service for a Broken Ankle.  Call 904-JOI-2000, schedule online or follow the link below. 



Skip to content