How To Tell if You Have a Fracture Instead of a Sprain

Fractures often summon images of deformed limbs or bone breaking through skin. While these are definitely telltale signs of a break, sometimes the symptoms are less obvious, especially in the case of a hairline fracture. 

As a primary hub for medical care in the South Bay area of California, our team offers state-of-the-art diagnostics and treatment at each of our Coastal Ortho locations. If you have a painful injury, here’s how to tell if you have a fracture instead of a sprain.

The difference between fractures and sprains

We know what you’re thinking — a fracture involves a break and a sprain does not. However, there are a few more distinctions beyond the injury itself.


Fractures describe a break of any size in a bone, from hairline cracks to bones that shatter or break in two. These kinds of injuries occur because too much force pushes a bone past its limit of pliability. Scenarios that commonly lead to broken bones include:

  • Slip-and-fall accidents
  • Trauma, assaults, or direct blows
  • Motor vehicle collisions 
  • Repetitive stress, like running

Medical conditions that weaken bones, like osteoporosis, can greatly increase your chances of sustaining fractures — even from normally harmless occurrences like stubbing your toe.


Unlike fractures that affect bones, sprains involve soft tissue, specifically ligaments. This fibrous tissue holds bones together, creating structure and support in a joint. When you sprain a ligament, the tissue gets overstretched or ruptures, resulting in an injury.

Similar to broken bones, sprains can vary in severity. When mild, the ligament still remains attached without any looseness or instability in the joint. However, when you have a severe sprain, the ligament can tear or completely separate from the bone. This type of injury can significantly impact joint function.

Sprains can occur for a variety of reasons. Still, active people are most at risk, especially during activities with lots of pivoting, jumping, or directional changes, like basketball, hockey, or soccer. 

How to tell if you have a fracture or a sprain

In many cases, intense pain, deformity, and difficulty or inability to use the affected area indicate a broken bone. Similarly, fractures often occur because of a significant event, like an accident.

However, it’s also common for sprains and fractures to cause equal amounts of pain and joint dysfunction. Plus, both injuries can cause swelling, bruising, inflammation, and limited mobility, making it tricky to know whether you have a break or a severe sprain. 

At the end of the day, the best way to determine the extent of an injury involves a clinical exam and diagnostic X-rays, especially if you have significant pain. This imaging allows us to spot even the finest hairline fracture so we can outline the most effective treatment plan for your injury.

The right treatment for your fracture or sprain

The good news is that many mild sprains respond to conservative treatments, like rest, ice, compression, and elevation — otherwise known as the RICE method. However, more severe the damage to either a bone or ligament requires more specialized attention. That could mean anything from basic splinting and casting to surgery.

In addition to personalized treatment strategies to ensure optimal healing for your fracture or sprain, our team may also recommend physical therapy. Customized to your individual needs, these programs restore strength and stability to the injured area, help foster a full recovery, and minimize your chances of future injury recurrence.

Do you have a painful injury? Don’t play a guessing game about the problem. Book a consultation with our skilled team in Torrance or El Segundo, California, by calling or requesting an appointment online today.