When you sustain a severe injury — whether it’s a twisted ankle, pulled muscle or what you think could be a broken bone — it’s crucial that you get a proper diagnosis of the problem before getting back to intense physical activity. Although people often use terms like “sprains,” “strains” and “twists” interchangeably, these terms actually signify distinct medical problems.
Texas Orthopedics’ board-certified surgeon, Dr. Chris Danney, specializes in sports medicine and outlined the difference between these severe injuries and how to tell when it’s time to see a specialist.
Sprain vs. Strain vs. Break
Pain, swelling and inflammation are common among sprains, strains and broken bones. But there are key differences among these three types of injuries:
- Sprains occur when the ligaments that support the various joints throughout your body are overstretched or torn. In severe cases, ligaments are completely torn and are no longer able to support the joint properly.
- Strains affect muscles and tendons and can be acute or chronic. Acute strains happen when muscles or tendons are pulled or overstretched. Chronic strains occur due to overuse.
- Breaks happen when the bone has been shattered or fractured. These injuries require immediate medical attention and may cause numbness and severe pain.
Know the Difference
While the only way to know for sure whether you’re dealing with a sprain, strain or broken bone is to consult a specialist, there are some signs to look for that may help you tell the difference. Dr. Danney says to look out for some immediate symptoms to consider:
- Does the area look deformed? If, after injury, the extremity looks deformed or out of place, it is a good indicator of a broken bone or dislocation.
- Can you bear weight? If the injury happened to an ankle, knee, arm, wrist or other load-bearing extremity, see if you can put weight on it. If you can walk with soreness, it is unlikely that it is broken.
- Is there significant swelling? If the injured area experiences immediate and severe swelling, that could be a sign of a broken bone or fracture. However, if the swelling is mild and develops gradually, it is likely a sprain or strain.
Although these are helpful indicators, it is possible to have a fracture or broken bone without having these symptoms. That is why if you are experiencing significant pain, discomfort, swelling or bruising, it’s a good idea to get an accurate diagnosis.
Because while rest is often the best medicine for strains and mild-to-moderate sprains, severe sprain injuries may require surgery, physical therapy or both. Breaks need immediate attention to determine if casting, surgery or both may be needed.
Our team of experienced orthopedic surgeons will conduct a thorough examination to diagnose the nature and severity of the injury. We know injuries can often happen at unexpected times, that’s why we offer same-day appointments to help you get the care you need, when you need it.