Athletes — especially those whose sports require a large amount of running — often suffer from foot injuries like fractures and sprains. It’s important to recognize the differences between these two conditions in order to seek appropriate treatment.
Foot fractures and sprains are both relatively common injuries among active people, and depending on the severity of the injury, they may present similar symptoms. However, these conditions can be distinguished from one another in one important way: while fractures are the result of a crack or break in the bone, sprains primarily impact ligaments (the thick elastic bands that connect bones together).
If you’re suffering from a painful foot injury, there are a few key ways to determine if it’s a fracture or a sprain. Here are some symptoms to look out for, as well as effective treatment options for each condition.
WHAT IS A SPRAIN?
As mentioned above, sprains are injuries to ligaments, which are the connective tissues that are responsible for stabilizing joints and facilitating motion. An ankle sprain is often the result of a sudden fall or a twist of the foot that causes the ligament to become overstretched. Symptoms include throbbing pain, bruising, swelling, and difficulty moving the area.
When treating a sprained foot or ankle, it’s important to rest for at least 48 hours after the injury. If possible, elevate your foot above the heart in order to reduce swelling. During this period, be sure to ice the injury for 20-minute intervals several times a day. You can also compress the ankle with a wrap or bandage to stabilize the area.
Physical therapy can help speed up the healing process after a sprain. Patients should begin physical therapy exercises after the first two days of rest. A physical therapist can help you stretch your foot and ankle to improve flexibility, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and prevent future injury.
HOW TO SPOT A FRACTURE
A foot fracture may present similar symptoms to a sprain — pain, bruising, swelling, and restricted movement — but it’s actually the result of a crack or break in the bone. The bones in your foot or ankle can be partially or completely fractured, which affects the severity of the injury. Like sprains, fractures can be caused by sudden impact due to a fall or accident. Fractures are also more common in patients with osteoarthritis, which causes the bone to thin and weaken.
There are a few ways to distinguish a foot or ankle fracture from a sprain. First, did you hear a “cracking” sound at the moment of injury? A “crack” is usually a sign of a break, while a “pop” likely indicates a sprain. Second, if the foot is visibly crooked or deformed, it’s probably fractured. Finally, numbness in your ankle or foot, as well as a complete inability to move the area, suggests that you are suffering from a broken bone.
Once a fracture is diagnosed, it should be treated according to its severity. Splints or casts are often used to immobilize the foot and ankle, allowing the area to heal. In more serious cases, surgery is required to realign the bone before a cast is applied. During the healing process, it’s important to limit your activity and keep the foot elevated to reduce swelling. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may be able to put weight on the foot right away or be required to wait a few weeks.
A physical therapy regimen can help you gradually increase your activity level as you recover from a foot or ankle fracture. As your bone repairs itself, you’ll also want to rebuild the surrounding muscles with stretches and gentle exercises.
Whether you’re suffering from a sprain or a fracture, it’s important to visit an orthopedic specialist to get an accurate diagnosis and determine an effective treatment plan. Dr. Christine M. Ellie is a top-rated foot and ankle doctor at New York Bone & Joint Specialists, and is experienced in treating foot pain through both conservative methods and arthroscopic surgery.
If you’re ready to address your symptoms and get back on your feet, set up an appointment with us today.