Acute injuries such as fractures, strains, and top-of-the-foot sprains can occur in people of all ages. Anyone can experience a twisted ankle, which may cause intermittent, sharp pain on the top of the foot. Broken ankles, also called ankle fractures, occur quite frequently – especially in the winter when there is ice around. We are also seeing more broken ankles as people remain more active into their later years than they have in previous generations. Let’s look at how to identify each of these injuries, as well as treatment tips and options.
How Do You Determine Whether You Have a Fracture, Sprain, or Strain?
Doctors determine whether you have a fracture, sprain, or strain by assessing the type of tissue affected. A fracture is a break or cracks in a hard bone, but detecting the difference between a sprain and strain is not straightforward. A sprain occurs when the ligament that attaches bones together is injured, while a strain is a tear in a tendon or muscle.
What Is a Fractured Foot?
A fractured foot is a break or cracks in one or more of the bones in your foot.
What Is a Sprained Foot?
A sprained foot involves stretching or tearing the ligaments of your foot. Athletes and dancers commonly experience a sprained foot or ankle. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect and stabilize your bones. In one foot, you have over 100 ligaments.
What is a Fractured Ankle?
There are three main bones of the ankle. A broken ankle may involve any one of these bones or a combination. In general, the more bones that are involved the more severe the injury. If part of one of the bones is broken you may be able to still walk. But if more than one bone is involved the ankle is typically too unstable to support the movement.
How Do You Know if You Have a Fractured Ankle?
A broken ankle can occur if you twist your foot awkwardly while walking, step on something slippery, or sustain an impact on your foot such as in a car accident or from a fall. It can be difficult to tell the difference between a bad ankle sprain and a broken ankle. Typical symptoms include pain with walking or the inability to walk or bear any weight at all. Signs of a broken ankle include swelling, bruising, tenderness to the touch, or even deformity.
When Should You See an Orthopedic Doctor for a Foot Fracture, Sprain, or Strain?
For a severe injury, you need to treat it as an emergency and see your doctor immediately. For less severe cases with minimal swelling and pain, you should apply home treatments first for a couple of days and then consult your physician if the pain persists. If you have a sports injury, you should consult your doctor for treatment right away.
Here are some signs of foot fractures, sprains, or strains that require medical attention:
You experience frequent pain weeks after your injury.
You notice a deformity in your foot, toe, or ankle.
Your pain worsens or does not get better with time.
Your swelling does not improve within two to five days after your injury.
You should go to the emergency room for a foot fracture, sprain or strain if you experience these symptoms:
Inability to walk or put any weight on your foot
Open wound or bones poking through the skin, also known as a compound fracture
What Should You Do If You Think You Have a Fractured Ankle?
It can be difficult to tell the difference between an ankle sprain and a fractured ankle. This is why you should be evaluated by a physician. The physician will likely order x-rays and in some cases further imaging studies such as a stress x-ray which is used to evaluate a syndesmosis injury, a CT scan, or an MRI.
Most ankle fractures can be treated without surgery, but some do require surgery to heal correctly. You and your doctor will discuss your treatment options to figure out what is best for your injury. You may be sent home in a temporary splint, a brace, a boot, or a cast. Once you get home you should elevate your ankle to about the level of your heart when you are lying down. When sitting up you can prop it on pillows or an ottoman or table. If you do not have a very bulky dressing on you should apply ice or frozen peas for 20 minutes per hour allowing about 40 minutes between sessions to prevent burns. Never put ice directly on your skin – wrap it in a light towel or t-shirt. Make sure you understand your treatment plan, including whether or not you are allowed to put weight on your ankle and schedule a time to follow up with your physician.
How to Treat a Fractured Foot
Before you visit your doctor to examine the injury, use the proven RICE therapy as top of foot pain treatment to reduce swelling:
Rest: Don’t put any weight on your injured foot and pause all activities or exercise routines. If you’re wondering, “Can I walk on a fractured foot?” the answer to your question is no! Refrain from walking on your foot to promote healing.
Ice: Apply ice to your injury for 15 to 20 minutes every three hours or so. You can use an ice pack or wrap a bag of frozen vegetables in a small towel and place it on your foot.
Compression: Support your foot with a bandage. Doing so will also reduce swelling.
Elevate: Raise your foot on a pillow to reduce fluid flow to the affected area.
You should also avoid taking hot baths or drinking alcoholic beverages for the first two days after the injury. You may use over-the-counter medication to reduce pain.
Besides RICE therapy, your doctor will also immobilize the area with a short walking boot, cast shoe, brace or elastic bandage. For a stress fracture, they may give you protective footwear and crutches to reduce stress on your foot.
Can You Walk on a Fractured Foot?
The answer to the question, “Can you walk on a fractured foot?” differs from the question, “Should you walk on a fractured foot?” Many minor fractures do not prevent your ability to walk. Still, to speed up healing and prevent further injury, you should avoid bearing weight on the injury as much as possible. Your doctor may provide crutches so you can walk without bearing weight on your foot. With moderate to severe foot fractures, your foot will most likely lack all weight-bearing ability.
Can You Walk on a Sprained or Strained Foot?
Although it is possible to walk on some foot sprains and strains, you should refrain from doing so until your injury heals enough. Even though sprains on the top of your foot impact your walking ability less than those on the bottom, you should still prioritize rest. If your ligament, muscle or tendon is completely torn, you likely won’t be able to walk or bear any weight on it.
What Type of Physical Therapy Is Needed for a Fracture, Sprain or Strain?
Not all fractures, sprains, or strains require physical therapy. In most cases, exercises and basic joint movements can improve the speed of healing. Therapy is particularly useful when you experience weakness or stiffness in the area of the injury. Therapy also helps increase muscle strength and range of motion at the joint.
How Long Does It Take for a Sprained or Strained Foot to Recover?
Sprains and strains have a similar recovery timeframe as fractures. That said, minor to moderate sprains and strains heal faster than fractures — approximately two to four weeks. Sprains or strains that require immobilization takes about six to eight weeks to heal, while those requiring surgery may take anywhere from three to six months to recover.
If you have any questions or want information on managing your orthopedic issues don’t hesitate to contact us.
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