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Fractures vs. Sprains: How to Spot the Difference

Sprains and fractures can feel the same, but they’re very different injuries. You may suffer similar swelling, bruising, weakness, and pain following each injury. A fracture, though, is a break in your bone while a sprain is injury to your ligaments, a type of soft tissue that connects two bones. 

Our team at Maryland Orthopedic Specialists often sees patients with sprains and fractures. Treatment for each injury is different, so you need an accurate diagnosis. 

Here’s how you can spot the differences between the two injuries and when you should come see our specialists.

About sprains

Sprains mean the ligaments around a joint have stretched too far. In serious sprains, the ligaments tear. 

A sprain causes pain, swelling, bruising, limited range of motion, and a popping sound or sensation in the joint area. 

Mild sprains respond well to home care, like over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication, rest, ice, and elevation. But severe sprains benefit from a medical evaluation and possible immobilization or surgery. 

About fractures

Fractures mean you’ve broken a bone in your body. You’ll notice pain around the injury. The affected limb may appear deformed and you’ll be unable to put weight on it. The area might sound “crunchy” as the bones rub together. 

You’ll also experience swelling and bruising. In severe fractures, you may see the bone poking through the skin. In these cases, you can be sure it’s a fracture and not a sprain.

Fractures require professional orthopedic care that may include casting and physical therapy. In some cases, surgery is necessary. We may also recommend further evaluation of the injury to ensure you have no damage to soft tissue in the area.

You want to be sure

We offer advanced imaging tests that give you an accurate diagnosis. An X-ray reveals a broken bone, but you may also require an MRI to reveal more subtle breaks (like stress fractures) or soft tissue damage. 

Once we have a diagnosis, our team puts together a customized treatment plan to help restore function and alleviate pain. Proper care for a sprain or fracture means you heal well and don’t have long-term complications or instability. 

For example, a single ankle sprain greatly increases your risk of suffering the injury again in the future and can cause instability in the joint that persists. 

Healing a sprain or fracture

A sprain must heal naturally. We can evaluate your body’s healing track and help you gradually add activity back in at the appropriate time. Heading back into a sport before a sprain is entirely healed can lead to reinjury, set healing back, or cause long-term ankle instability.

Slight fractures also need to heal on their own. We may give you a sling or a boot to support the damaged joint. Most fractures, though, require resetting and then casting to heal. 

We’ll also stick by you throughout the healing process and help you understand what activity to add when, so your bone heals properly.

Physical therapy is an important part of each injury’s treatment plan.

Even if you think you have a minor injury, you’d be smart to seek an evaluation at Maryland Orthopedic Specialists. An accurate diagnosis means optimal care and proper healing. 

Contact us at Maryland Orthopedic Specialists for an evaluation at our Bethesda, Rockville, or Germantown, Maryland, office. Call 301-515-0900 or set up an appointment here to have your injury evaluated.

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