Is It a Sprain or a Break? How to Tell the Difference

Sprains and broken bones, or fractures, often cause similar symptoms, so it can be hard to know how serious your injury is or the type of treatment you need. The main difference is that a fracture is a break in your bone, while a sprain is a soft tissue injury. Mild sprains will usually heal on their own, but broken bones require medical attention.

How to Identify a Sprain

A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament, which is the tissue connecting two bones that stabilize the joint. A sprain puts stress on a joint and can overstretch supporting ligaments.

Sprains are classified by severity:

  • Grade 1 (mild) sprain: You stretch your ligament slightly. There may be some minor damage to the ligament fibers. Mild sprains are the most common type of sprain.
  • Grade 2 (moderate) sprain: You partly tear your ligament. You may feel looseness or some instability in the joint along with limited movement.
  • Grade 3 (severe) sprain: You tear your ligament completely, which may cause significant instability. You may feel a tear or pop in the joint when a severe sprain occurs.

A sprain is typically caused by a fall, a twist or a blow to the body, like that sustained in contact sports. Ankle, knee and wrist sprains are the most common. Sprain symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising, inflammation, and instability or immobility of the joint.

Mild or moderate sprains can be treated at home with the RICE method in the first 48 hours after the injury. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help reduce pain and swelling.

When to Seek Medical Attention for a Sprain

Depending on the severity of the sprain, you may need to see a healthcare provider or seek emergency medical care.

  • If the pain or swelling hasn’t improved after a few days, see a healthcare provider. Your primary care provider or a walk-in urgent care clinic like River’s Edge Hospital’s Urgent Care Department can evaluate the injury and recommend treatment for a sprain.
  • If you heard a “pop” at the time of the injury and the pain is severe, or you notice signs of infection, such as increased warmth, redness, streaks or swelling, go to the emergency room for immediate care.

How to Identify a Broken Bone

A fracture is a break in a bone. Fractures are caused by car accidents, falls, sports injuries, and sometimes by low bone density or osteoporosis, which thins and weakens the bones. Bones that puncture the skin after a break are known as compound or open fractures.

Symptoms of a broken bone include bruising or tenderness around the injury, difficulty moving a limb, deformity (such as when the limb looks out of place), intense pain and swelling.

Bone breaks require medical attention and should always be looked at by a healthcare provider. A primary care or urgent care provider can order an X-ray to confirm the break, stabilize a minor break and refer a patient to an orthopedic surgeon for treatment.


Anyone can experience a sprain or a fracture. Help reduce your risk for injury with these tips:

  • Warm up and cool down as part of any exercise routine.
  • Do strength and coordination exercises.
  • Avoid exercise when you’re tired or in pain.
  • Eat a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D to keep your bones strong.
  • Wear appropriate protective equipment when participating in any sport.

The providers at River’s Edge Hospital’s Urgent Care Department are an excellent resource for your sprained ligaments. 


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