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Is It a Sprain or Fracture?

Aug 13, 2015

When you suffer an injury and experience pain in a certain area of your body, it can be difficult to determine on your own whether it’s a sprain or a fracture. A sprain is classified as a stretched or torn ligament or tendon, while a fracture is a broken bone.

If you’re experiencing pain around the soft tissue but not over your bone, it’s likely that you have a sprain and not a break. Typically you can move the affected limb with a sprain as well. Pain over the bone usually indicates a break and you probably won’t be able to walk.

After the Injury

The first rule of thumb to treating an injury, whether it’s a sprain or a break, is to rest it. If you hurt your ankle, stay off your feet, and if you hurt your wrist, avoid using that arm. Continuing to use the injured limb can only aggravate it and add to your pain.

The RICE method is effective for relieving pain and reducing swelling. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Rest the affected limb, apply ice to it for 20 minutes at a time, use compression such as an ACE bandage to stabilize it, and elevate it by propping it up at a level that’s above your heart. Do this for two days and if you’re still not feeling better, it’s imperative that you visit a doctor.


When you go to the doctor, describe in detail how the injury occurred. If you can tell your doctor the specifics, such as how your limb turned or rotated, he or she will be able to effectively diagnose and treat your sprain or fracture.

After learning about your injury and your medical history, your doctor will perform a physical examination and will probably have you get X-rays to see if the bone is broken, where it’s broken, and what type of fracture it is.


If it’s determined that you have a sprain, your doctor may give you a brace to stabilize the joint and some medicine to help ease your pain. Your doctor may also decide that physical therapy will beneficial if your sprain is severe, such as a muscle strain. This involves various exercises to improve your range of motion and increase function.

The length of recovery after your sprain will depend on the severity, but you’ll likely be able to return to normal activities after 12 weeks.

If you have a fracture, the most common form of treatment is casting. A plaster or fiberglass cast will hold the re-positioned bones in place and allow them to heal.

In some cases, a severe fracture must be treated surgically to ensure that broken bones are positioned properly. This may involve inserting screws, metal plates, or rods.

Recovering from surgical treatment can take anywhere from several weeks to several months and may also involve physical therapy to restore full range of motion.

If you’re dealing with an injury and unsure whether it’s a sprain or a fracture, the only way to be sure is to visit your doctor.

For more information about fracture care, click here to download our free eBook,Understanding Fracture Care: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment.

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