Broken Ankle Symptoms and Treatment

A fractured or broken ankle is a partial or complete break of one or more bones in the ankle.

People most commonly break an ankle when doing physical activities like running and jumping. The impact from falling or tripping also can cause you to break your ankle. Car accidents are another common cause of fractured or broken bones.

Although the severity may vary, broken ankle injuries are highly treatable for most people.

Symptoms of a Broken Ankle

Signs of a broken ankle include:

  • Immediate pain after the injury
  • Swelling, bruising, and, in some cases, visible deformity
  • Difficulty walking, bearing weight, or wearing shoes
  • Pain or tenderness when moving the ankle

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When to See a Doctor

If you believe your ankle is sprained, strained, or fractured, you should have it examined by a medical professional immediately. People often mistake an ankle fracture for an ankle sprain or strain. A doctor can determine the exact cause of swelling, bruising, and pain.

During your appointment, the doctor will conduct a physical exam of your ankle and the surrounding area to pinpoint the injury. Your doctor may request an x-ray or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to see the injury more clearly or evaluate the severity.

Types of Broken Ankles

Common types of broken ankles include stable and unstable fractures.

  • stable fracture is one in which the broken bones remain aligned with each other and are barely out of place.
  • An unstable fracture occurs when there are multiple breaks, the break extends into the ankle joint, or there is damage to the cartilage. Unstable ankle fractures are most common in athletes who play high-impact running sports such as football, basketball, and soccer.

Diagnosing a Broken Ankle

Doctors diagnose broken ankles in several ways:

  • Physical exam: A doctor evaluates the ankle by moving it around, testing your range of motion, and checking for tenderness.
  • X-ray: A broken ankle usually shows up on an x-ray. An x-ray technician will likely take several different views of the ankle so the doctor can see the exact location of the break.
  • MRI: An MRI can provide even greater detail. It can help the doctor see bone breaks and fractures that don’t show clearly on an x-ray. With an MRI, the doctor also can see soft tissue, such as ligaments.

Treatment for a Broken Ankle

After diagnosing a fracture, your doctor will develop an individualized treatment plan specific to the injury and your needs. Your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic specialist or surgeon. They will likely recommend wearing an ankle brace for a few months after the injury heals.

Treatment for stable breaks

Stable breaks are usually treated without surgery and but require you to keep weight off the ankle.

A stable ankle break often requires you to wear a boot or cast, or use crutches for a set amount of time. Your doctor also may suggest nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs like ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Physical therapy may be recommended to help you regain strength in the ankle.

Treatment for unstable breaks

Unstable fractures typically require surgery to reset ankle bones and ligaments. Your doctor may use pins, screws, or other implements to stabilize the area. Following surgery, your doctor will prescribe physical therapy to help you regain strength and stability.

NSAIDs can help reduce pain and swelling of a broken ankle.

Broken Ankle Recovery Time

Recovery time for a broken ankle is different for every injury. It also may depend on other factors, such as:

  • Level of activity you are returning to (daily life vs. elite athlete)
  • Severity of the fracture
  • Extent of the surgery

Most stable ankle fractures require you to avoid putting weight on your foot by using crutches and a boot or a cast. This typically lasts for four to six weeks before physical therapy begins.

Physical therapy often lasts about two months. At that point, most patients are able to walk around, but are still not able to resume athletic activity.

With a stable ankle fracture, it typically takes three to four months before a patient is able to return to low-impact athletic activities.

For unstable ankle fractures that require surgery, it may take nine to 12 months before patients can return to significant athletic activity.

Frequently Asked Questions About Broken Ankles

If you have an ankle injury, you may have some questions.

How can I tell if my ankle is sprained or broken?

The most obvious symptom is pain. If you feel pain directly over the ankle bone, it’s likely a break. If you feel pain in the “softer” areas of your ankle, it’s more likely a sprain.

Keep in mind, you may have both. And both breaks and sprains cause swelling.

There are other symptoms that are more typical of broken ankles. If your ankle looks twisted or abnormal, it may be broken. Breaks also are more likely to cause numbness and tingling.

Can I move my toes if my ankle is broken?

Even if your ankle is broken, there’s a good chance you can move your toes. There are different kinds of ankle fractures. You may have one that doesn’t affect the nerves and muscles that allow you to move your toes.

What does a broken ankle feel like?

A broken ankle is painful. You will feel tenderness, and possibly numbness or tingling. It will be difficult to walk on (though not necessarily impossible).

How do I know if my ankle is broken?

The only way to know for sure if your ankle is broken is to see a doctor. The doctor will take x-rays — and may order an MRI.

Can I walk on a broken ankle?

Whether or not you can walk on a broken ankle depends on the severity of the fracture. You may be able to put weight on a broken ankle, although it likely will be painful. Even if you can walk, if you feel pain and are experiencing swelling and tenderness, you should see a doctor.

Can a broken ankle heal on its own?

Some fractures may heal on their own. However, undiagnosed fractures can lead to arthritis and other problems. If you suspect you have a broken ankle, it’s very important to see a doctor.

What happens if a broken ankle goes untreated?

According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, patients who don’t get treatment for ankle fractures are at risk for:

  • Developing an infection
  • Developing arthritis
  • Having trouble walking normally because of foot deformities

Postmenopausal women (ages 50 to 70) with osteoporosis are among those at the highest risk. Osteoporosis is a bone-thinning disease that affects how broken bones heal. When a woman with osteoporosis breaks her ankle, the bone may break in fragments that don’t rejoin naturally.

At the other end of the spectrum, children who are still growing also may damage their growth plates. Proper medical treatment is needed to ensure that the injury doesn’t affect bone growth and cause arthritis or bone spurs.

To learn more about broken ankles or to schedule an appointment with UPMC Orthopaedic Care, call 1-866-987-6784 or visit UPMC.com/Ortho.

About UPMC Orthopaedic Care

As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, UPMC treats a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. Whether you have bone, muscle, or joint pain, we provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. As leaders in research and clinical trials with cutting-edge tools and techniques, UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside appears on U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top hospitals in the country for orthopaedics.