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Is it broken or is it sprained?

If you’ve injured your wrist or ankle, it is sometimes difficult to tell if it is broken or sprained. Sprains are extremely common and make up about 25% of sports injuries. So what’s the difference between a break and a sprain?

Break vs. Sprain

Whether you sustain a break or a sprain, you will most likely experience discomfort and swelling, and inflammation in the affected area. It is easy to confuse breaks and sprains, so here are a few of their differences.


A break occurs when your bone is fractured or shattered. This can happen from any number of accidents like falls, accidents, and even overuse. If you think you have broken a bone, it is best to seek out the help of a doctor. Signs of a broken bone include the following:

  • Cannot put weight on the affected limb either immediately after or within a few hours/days
  • Pain in the injured area that ranges from moderate to severe
  • Immediate swelling and bruising
  • The area of the injury looks deformed
  • Bone coming through the skin
  • Popping or cracking sounds when you move the area (called crepitus)
  • A grinding or gravel-like feel when you move the area


Sprains happen when you stretch or tear your ligament after putting a lot of stress on your joints. This commonly happens in the ankles, knees, and wrists. Signs of a sprain include the following:

  • Pain in the injured area that ranges from mild to moderate
  • Some bruising and swelling
  • The area of the injury feels unstable
  • Limited range of motion
  • A “popping” sound or feeling when the injury occurred

What’s the difference?

There are a few assessment questions you can ask yourself to better determine if you have a sprain or fracture. Some popping of the joints is normal; however, there is not typically pain associated with normal cracking of joints.

Did I hear a crack or a popping sound when the injury occurred? Many times a sprain will not make any sounds at the time of injury. However, in severe sprains, it is possible to hear a distinct “popping” sound near the joint. A cracking sound is more common in fractures due to bone breaking.

Am I experiencing numbness? Numbness and tingling are signs that you may have a broken bone. Sprains will just be painful without numbness and tingling.

Does the area of injury look deformed? Due to bone breakage, it can cause the injured area to look deformed. While both fractures and sprains result in swelling, sprains do not look otherwise deformed.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you cannot walk or use the injured area, it looks deformed, or you are experiencing extreme pain, it is time to seek medical attention. Many urgent cares have x-ray machines and can tell you if it is indeed broken. Often they will refer you to an orthopedic doctor to help you figure out treatment options. If you aren’t sure if your local urgent care has an x-ray machine, you can just head to the emergency room.

Many mild to moderate sprains clear up on their own using the RICE method. This stands for the following:

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

Using this method will help your sprain to heal more quickly. It is important to note that if your sprain does not seem to get better after using this method for a few days, it is advisable to see a doctor.

Fast Access to Healthcare Professionals

UBERDOC allows you to get the care you need in an easy and affordable way. We offer both in-person and telemedicine appointments, ensuring that you have access to the healthcare you need, no matter how busy or restrictive your day is. To find out more about our orthopedic services and how UBERDOC can help you, contact us today!


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