Is it a Sprain or a Fracture: How to Tell the Difference

Apr 01, 2023
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Although sprains and fractures can cause similar symptoms, their treatment can differ. Here are the symptoms you should know to help determine your type of injury.

Sprains and fractures are common musculoskeletal injuries, and while they may share some similar symptoms, they’re different in important ways. Each requires a distinct treatment approach, too, so knowing how these injuries differ is important for making sure you get the care you need as soon as possible.

With three locations island-wide, Minit Medical Urgent Care and Physical Therapy is a leading provider of both sprain and fracture treatment for patients in Kihei, Kahului, and Lahaina, Hawaii. In this post, our team offers a brief overview of these two common medical problems and how to tell them apart.

Quick facts about sprains

While fractures involve your bones, sprains involve strong bands of tissue called ligaments. Ligaments attach one bone to another at a joint. Although ligaments are somewhat flexible, sprains happen when a ligament is stretched beyond its normal capacity. In a severe sprain, excessive stretching causes the ligament to tear.

Sprains can happen for different reasons, but most tend to happen from overuse, repetitive use, pivoting movements, or twisting, especially in your ankles or knees. Although it’s less common, a sprain can also happen from a direct impact, like a fall.

Quick facts about fractures

Fracture is another word for a broken bone, and as with other acute injuries, they can range in seriousness from relatively mild to very severe. Like sprains, fractures can happen from a fall, sports injury, car accident, or other trauma. Non-impact fractures can happen in people with osteoporosis, a degenerative condition that causes the bones to become weak and porous.

Types of fractures

Fractures can happen in different ways, determined in part by the stress or force that causes the bone to break. 


In these fractures, the broken ends of the bones remain lined up with each other.


Transverse fractures are breaks that occur in a horizontal plane across the bone.


An oblique fracture is a break that happens at an angle, rather than straight across (like a transverse fracture).


In a compound fracture, the end of one or more broken bones pierces the skin (also called an open fracture). It can also occur when a blow to the bone goes through the skin, exposing the bone underneath.


While many breaks involve two broken “parts,” comminuted fractures involve bones broken in multiple places or pieces.

Stress fractures

Stress fractures are small cracks that occur in a bone that’s been weakened by osteoporosis or a bone that’s been subjected to repeated stresses, like jumping.

When the broken bone ends are out of place, they can tear through other tissue, causing significant bleeding, soft tissue trauma, and in some cases, nerve damage. Open fractures can quickly become infected. Seeking immediate care for any fracture is very important for preventing complications.

Sprains and fractures: Symptoms to watch for

Sprains and fractures cause many similar symptoms, but in fractures, these symptoms tend to be more severe. Common warning signs of either problem can include:

  • Pain, swelling, and bruising
  • Inability to bear weight
  • Reduced range of motion
  • “Snap” or “pop” noise at the time of injury

In a fracture, the bones may appear misshapen, and swelling can be very severe. While you might be able to limp around on a sprained ankle, if your ankle is broken, you won’t be able to bear any weight on it at all. It’s also important to remember that sprains typically happen right around a joint, while a fracture can happen at any place along a bone.

Although there’s definitely some variation in the severity of symptoms in these two types of injuries, in many cases, the only real way to know for sure which injury you have is to seek professional evaluation and care. In addition to a physical exam, we’ll use X-rays or other diagnostic imaging to determine the type of injury you have as well as its extent and severity.

Treating sprains and fractures

The treatment for sprains and fractures can vary significantly, depending in part on the severity of the injury. Some milder fractures or sprains may require a brace or splint, while many fractures require a cast. Very severe sprains or fractures often need to be treated surgically.

Regardless of the type of injury you have, our team can make sure you get the right treatment to help you recover quickly and completely. If you think you have a sprain or fracture, visit us for a walk-in appointment or book an appointment online or over the phone with Minit Medical Urgent Care and Physical Therapy today.