Sprains vs Broken Bones: What’s the Difference?

sprains vs broken bones

Accidents happen; a stumble on a rug, a fall on the sidewalk, or an injury on the soccer field. But how do you know when it’s serious? Broken bones and sprains often have similar symptoms, making it difficult to tell how serious your injury really is and what kind of treatment you need. Treatment options vary greatly between bone fractures and sprains, so it’s important to have some guidelines on how to know if a bone is broken or sprained. 

Bone Fractures vs Sprains

A fracture is a broken bone while a sprain is a stretched or torn ligament (tissue connecting two bones). 

Sprains

Sprains are generally the result of a fall, twist, or blow to a joint, which then overextends or ruptures the supporting ligaments.  

  • A mild sprain happens when the ligament is stretched but the joint remains stable. 
  • A moderate sprain happens when the ligament is partially torn, causing the joint to be unstable.
  • A severe sprain is when the ligament tears completely or separates from the bone. 

Typical symptoms include pain, swelling or inflammation, bruising, limited movement, or a “pop” sound in the joint. The most commonly sprained joint is the ankle. 

broken bones and sprainsFractures

Fractures can be crack, splinter, or complete break in one or more bones or cartilage as a result of trauma to the body. Symptoms are typically more severe and they include: 

  • Stiffness 
  • Bruising 
  • Swelling 
  • Inability to move 
  • Severe pain in the area 
  • Inability to put weight on the bone or limb 
  • Protruding bone 

Keep in mind that severe sprains can be just as painful as fractures and an x-ray is the only way to truly differentiate between the two.

First Aid for Broken Bones and Sprains

The most effective and immediate treatment for a sprain is to treat it with the RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce pain and inflammation as well. A fracture, meanwhile, most likely requires immediate medical assistance and should be treated as a medical emergency. Generally, a healthcare professional will first immobilize the area with a splint and elevate. Treatment typically involves a cast or other long-term brace. In the event of a severe fracture, physical therapy or an operative procedure might be recommended. 

If you think that you or a loved one has a break or a sprain, the best step is to get to a doctor, ER, or urgent care. An x-ray can confirm or rule out a broken bone, and the medical professional can quickly diagnose your injury and provide treatment. 

Know Where to Go for Care

If you suspect that you have a compound fracture, or if it is a break in a large bone such as the femur, or a suspected fracture in the head, neck, or back, then you should visit the emergency room immediately. However, if your symptoms don’t seem to require an emergency room visit, you might be better off going to urgent care

The UrgentMED Network has 18 convenient walk-in clinics throughout Southern California, offering digital x-rays to confirm a diagnosis. The injury can be stabilized if necessary, and a treatment plan provided or referral made to a specialist. If you’ve experienced an accident and suspect a broken bone or sprain, don’t wait. Visit the closest UrgentMED clinic to you.