Understanding the differences between sprains and fractures

Published: Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Sports Medicine

Accidents happen, and when they do, injuries can occur. Two common types of injuries that often get confused are sprains and fractures. While they both involve damage to the body, they affect different structures and require different approaches to treatment. Let’s delve into the nuances of sprains and fractures to understand their differences better. 

What is a sprain?

A sprain refers to the stretching or tearing of ligaments, the tough bands of tissue that connect bones to each other around a joint. Sprains commonly occur in the ankles, wrists, and knees, often due to sudden twisting or wrenching motions. Symptoms of a sprain include pain, swelling, bruising, and difficulty moving the affected joint. 

What is a fracture?

On the other hand, a fracture occurs when there is a crack or break in the continuity of the bone. Fractures can vary in severity, from hairline cracks to complete breaks that pierce through the skin. They can result from trauma, such as falls, accidents, or repetitive stress on the bone. Symptoms of a fracture include pain, swelling, deformity, and difficulty bearing weight on the affected limb. 

Key differences

  1. Affected Structures: The primary difference between a sprain and a fracture lies in the structures involved. A sprain affects ligaments, whereas a fracture involves the bone itself. 
  2. Symptoms: While both injuries may cause pain, swelling, and difficulty moving the affected area, fractures may also present with visible deformity or an inability to bear weight on the injured limb. 
  3. Treatment: Treatment approaches differ for sprains and fractures. Sprains often respond well to rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE), along with physical therapy to strengthen the affected joint. Fractures may require immobilization with a cast or splint, realignment (reduction) of the bone if displaced, and in some cases, surgical intervention. 
  4. Healing Time: Healing times for both sprains and fractures vary depending on the severity of the injury. Mild sprains generally heal within a few weeks with proper care. Severe sprains in which the ligament is torn may take several weeks and may even need to be surgically repaired.  Fractures take from a few weeks to a few months to heal, also depending on the severity. 

When to seek medical attention

It’s essential to seek medical attention for both sprains and fractures, especially if: 

  • You experience severe pain or swelling. 
  • You are unable to bear weight on the injured limb. 
  • There is visible deformity or an abnormal appearance of the affected area. 
  • You suspect a bone may be broken. 

Understanding the differences between sprains and fractures is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment. While both injuries can be painful and disruptive, knowing how to differentiate between them can help guide appropriate management and promote optimal recovery. If you suspect you have sustained a sprain or fracture, reach out and make an appointment today with NGPG Orthopedic Surgery & Sports Medicine.