Is It a Fracture or a Sprain? How to Tell if You've Broken a Bone

Dec 01, 2022

Is It a Fracture or a Sprain? How to Tell if You've Broken a Bone

Is It a Fracture or a Sprain? How to Tell if You've Broken a Bone

Fractures and sprains are two common injuries 一 for athletes and non-athletes alike 一 but although they’re common, they are very different. A fracture is a broken bone (there are many different types), while a sprain affects your ligaments.

Both can cause pain and swelling, so how do you know if you have a fracture or a sprain? 

Our team of orthopedic specialists is experienced in diagnosing and treating fractures and sprains, but the first step is to confirm which type of injury you have. Here’s a closer look at how to tell the difference. 

How to tell if you have a sprain

A sprain happens when you overstretch or tear a ligament — the fibrous bands of tissue that link two bones together in a joint. 

You might suspect you have a sprain if you notice the following:

  • Pain near your joint
  • Tenderness
  • Mild bruising 
  • Swelling
  • Limited range of motion 
  • Difficulty putting weight on your joint


The severity of your symptoms depends on whether you overstretched or tore your ligament. Sprains are categorized by grades, where grade 1 is a mild overstretching, and grade 3 is a tear. While you might be able to walk with a grade 1 ankle sprain, likely, you won’t be able to walk with a grade 3 sprain. You might feel as if your entire ankle has given out.

How to tell if you have a fracture

A fracture happens when your bone breaks. Fractures can happen in any bone in your body, but the type of fracture can vary. Fractures can be described as:

  • Compound: the bone break through your skin
  • Stable: both ends of your bone are only slightly out of alignment
  • Comminuted: the bone is broken (often shattered) in three or more pieces and requires immediate surgery
  • Oblique: the break goes all the way through your bone, often at an angle 
  • Transverse: the break is perpendicular to the length of your bone


Your symptoms may vary a little depending on your fracture type. For instance, if you have a compound fracture, the thought of a sprain might not even cross your mind. In some cases, you might not be able to tell whether you have a fracture or sprain.

You might suspect a fracture if you have:

  • Deformity near the injured body part
  • Pain that worsens when you move or when pressure is applied
  • Bruising over the top of the bone (this can happen very quickly!)
  • Severe swelling 
  • Inability to move, use, or put weight on the injured limb
  • Bone protruding from the skin (compound fracture)

Not only can it be hard to identify which injury you have, but both injuries can also occur simultaneously.

Treating sprains and fractures

Before you can get started with any treatment, our team first diagnoses the type and severity of your injury through a physical examination, a review of your symptoms, and an analysis of an x-ray. 

Mild sprains may benefit from employing the RICE protocol ー rest, ice, compression, and elevation ー but other types may need a brace or splint. Treating fractures depends on your fracture type and might include casting, splinting, traction, and surgery. Both fractures and sprains can benefit from physical therapy.

If you have an injury, it’s crucial to get orthopedic care as soon as possible. Not only does swift treatment help with your immediate symptoms, but the right care can help prevent long-term complications of a poorly healed injury. 

Call the Sequoia Institute Orthopaedic Specialists and book your appointment today.