Strain, Sprain, or Fracture?

It’s happened to the best of us – you’re enjoying the views on your scenic hike and stumble over a rock in the trail. Now you’ve got a sore, swollen ankle and you’re left wondering how serious your ankle injury might be. These common injuries share similar symptoms, but usually involve different parts of your body. Read on to learn the major differences between strains, sprains, and fractures.


A strain is when damage occurs to muscles and tendons as a result of a joint being pulled or stretched too far. Tendons are fibrous cords that attach muscles to the bones and allow our joints to move and be stable. Strains are most commonly seen in the lower back or leg muscles, but can also occur in the wrist, ankle, and other parts of the body where major muscles and tendons are present. Pain, swelling, and muscle spasms are all usual symptoms of a strain, but they can usually be treated at home. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation, as well as protection of the injury, are all recommended at-home treatments.


Similar to a strain, a sprain occurs when ligaments are stretched beyond their limit – or even torn. Ligaments are tough bands of fibrous tissue that connect two bones together in your joints. The most common location for a sprain is your ankle, but sprains are also commonly seen in the knee and wrist. Symptoms of a sprain are similar to that of a strain with swelling and pain, but a sprain will also usually bring bruising with it. The majority of all ankle sprains will heal without any need for surgery. Even a complete ligament tear can heal naturally if given the appropriate rest. Rest and protection of the joint are the initial recommendations for a sprain. Once swelling is reduced, range of motion, strength, and flexibility will be reintroduced through various exercises dictated by your doctor.


Unlike strains and sprains, a fracture is when a bone is cracked or broken. The joints and ligaments may also be damaged when a fracture occurs. Symptoms of a fracture include sudden, severe, and immediate pain, swelling, and bruising, and the inability to bear weight or move the injured part of your body. You may not require surgery if the joint remains stable and the fracture is minor. If the fracture is out of place or your joint is unstable, your orthopedic surgeon may need to do surgery.

Because all of these symptoms can be so similar, we always recommend being evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon after an injury.