Ankle Sprain vs. Stress Fracture: 4 Critical Differences

Sprains and stress fractures can mess up your ankle for several weeks, but how do you know which type of injury you have?

The best way is to see Dr. Bryan King or Dr. Jeffrey Cuomo at Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Their experience and expertise enable them to reach an accurate diagnosis quickly so you can get started on the appropriate treatment. 

In the meantime, here are some clues about these two common ankle injuries to narrow down the possibilities and understand what may have happened inside your ankle. 

What is a stress fracture?

A fracture is a broken bone — it can be a partial or complete break. A stress fracture is also a bone break, but the cause is typically overuse or repetitive activity rather than an acute traumatic incident. 

If you’re an avid runner or play a sport that requires a lot of running, such as basketball or soccer, you’re susceptible to stress fractures or small cracks in your ankle bones.

What is an ankle sprain?

An ankle sprain doesn’t involve your bones but your ligaments, the tissues that connect your muscles to your bones. If you fall, roll, or twist your ankle violently, you can stretch your ligaments beyond their capacity, and you have a sprained ankle. 

We grade sprained ankles according to the severity of the overstretching: Grade 1 is a mild stretch, grade 2 is a moderate stretch with partial tearing, and grade 3 is a fully severed ligament. 

The differences between an ankle sprain and a stress fracture

When your ankle hurts and you can’t put weight on it, you know you’ve damaged something inside, but what? Is it a sprain or a stress fracture? Answering the following four questions helps you arrive at a fairly reliable self-diagnosis.

1. Did you hear any sound when you injured your ankle?

If you were in a car accident or running for a touchdown amid the roaring cheers of a full stadium, you might not have heard anything when your ankle injury occurred. However, hearing a sound at the moment of impact can give you a clue about the type of injury.

A popping sound may indicate a severe ligament rupture (sprained ankle). A cracking sound may indicate a fracture.

2. Is your ankle numb?

Ankle sprains and stress fractures are typically painful, but only a fracture comes with a potential symptom of numbness and tingling. 

If you’ve lost feeling in your ankle or have a pins-and-needles sensation, you may have a fracture. If so, it requires immediate medical attention because you may have a loss of blood flow to the area.

3. Where is the pain?

Focusing on where your ankle hurts the most can help you figure out what type of injury you have. 

For example, a fractured bone hurts when you touch the area directly over that bone. Ankle fractures are most common in the three bones that make up your ankle joint: the tibia, the fibula, and the talus. 

The bumps on your inner and outer ankle, formed by the ends of the tibia and fibula, are susceptible to fractures. If these are extremely tender or painful when you touch them, chances are you have a fracture.

On the other hand, sprains affect your ligaments, so if your pain is concentrated in your ankle’s soft tissues, you likely have an ankle sprain.

4. Is your ankle distorted?

Sprained and fractured ankles both cause swelling and bruising, but that’s where the similarities end. A fractured ankle — especially a severe fracture — can throw your ankle joint out of alignment and make it appear misshapen.

Treatment for ankle sprains and stress fractures

Once we diagnose your injury, we get you started on a treatment that addresses your unique symptoms and considers your age, weight, lifestyle, and activity goals. Depending on the type and location of your injury, your treatment plan might include bracing, physical therapy, rest, medication, and/or surgery. 

If you’re an athlete and the injury happened in a game, practice, or training, our sports medicine experts develop a treatment plan specifically geared toward your sport and getting you back in the game with a strong, fully healed ankle. 

To schedule an appointment with our specialists, call Tuscaloosa Orthopedic & Joint Institute at 205-391-4440. 

You Might Also Enjoy...

3 Sneaky Causes of Joint Pain Besides Arthritis

Hands down, arthritis tops the charts when it comes to joint pain, but it’s not the only menace to your human hinges. Here’s a look at some lesser-known conditions that cause creaking, stiffness, and pain in your joints.

How to Avoid Waking Up with Shoulder Pain

You went to bed feeling fine, only to wake up with excruciating shoulder pain that makes brushing your teeth and getting dressed nearly impossible. What happened, and how can you avoid it tomorrow?

3 Habits to Avoid If You Have Carpal Tunnel

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, you need pain relief and healing. Unfortunately, you may be worsening your condition without knowing it. Are you guilty of these habits that aggravate carpal tunnel symptoms?

Am I a Candidate for Hip Injections?

You wince just by getting into and out of your car, and wonder what can be done about your nagging hip pain. Depending on the root cause, you may find relief in a simple injection. Here’s what you need to know.