Sprains and broken bones can be painful and can look similar from the outside.  It is important to know when to seek treatment. Connecticut Children’s sports medicine expert Allison Crepeau, MD, addresses the main differences between a sprain and a broken bone. 

1. What exactly is a sprain?

A sprain is when the ligament stretches or tears. The ligament is the tough tissue that connects bones together. Sprains can be mild, severe or somewhere in between, depending on the damage from injury.  
Here are the symptoms of a sprain:

  • Pain
  • Swelling 
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty moving a joint or weight bearing

2. What exactly is a broken bone?  

A broken bone is exactly what the name implies.  In orthopedics, the words “break” and “fracture” mean the same thing. Like sprains, fractures can be mild, severe or in between—depending on how much the bone moves. Fractures can be non-displaced (meaning the bone is perfectly lined up and not crooked) or displaced.  There are many types of fractures in kids that do not happen in adults, such as buckle fractures (incomplete fractures of only one side of a bone) and growth plate fractures.  Here are the symptoms of a sprain:

  • Pain
  • Swelling 
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty moving a joint or weight bearing


3. If the symptoms are the same for each, how do I know if my child has a sprain or a broken bone?

The real answer is that the only way to know is to be evaluated by a medical professional who would decide if an X-ray is needed.  Because of the range of severity, a young child with a non-displaced fracture may only have mild swelling while a teen with a severe sprain can have an impressive amount of swelling and bruising.  

4. If my child can move their arm or leg, does it mean it's not broken?

This an old myth.   

Please, please please—see a doctor! They can examine your child’s injury and confirm the diagnosis and treatment plan going forward.

5. What is the treatment for sprains and broken bones?

It depends on how severe the injury is.  

  • Sprains can usually be treated with rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). Ice the area regardless, especially while waiting to get medical attention. Sometimes with severe sprains, especially of the ankle, immobilization (staying still) may be recommended.
  • Broken bones might need a brace, a cast, or surgery.  If a fracture is crooked or out of place, it may require a reduction, where the alignment of the bone is corrected.  Broken bones will also need ice and elevation.   
  • Depending on the injury and the patient, a home exercise program or physical therapy may be recommended to make sure kids can get back to sports and activities safely and avoid reinjury.

>Related: Why Athletes Should Take it Easy When Returning to Sports After a Break

6. Why is it important to bring my child to a pediatric orthopedist or sports medicine specialist versus an adult one?

Our orthopedic and sports medicine teams are trained specifically in growth plates. Most kids will grow until age 16-17 (girls may stop growing earlier but everyone is a little different).  Understanding kid bones and X-rays is very different than adults, which is why after a visit to the emergency room or urgent care, you’ll want to follow up with a specialist. 

>>Attention, families! Recent injury?  We offer same-day orthopedic appointments at our Hartford, Westport, Farmington, Glastonbury, Shelton and Danbury specialty care locations, Monday – Friday from 8 am to 4:30 pm.  
 Please consider the following for a possible sprain or broken bone: 

  • For injuries where a bone or limb looks crooked or deformed, you should head to an emergency room.  
  • For lesser injuries without deformity, Connecticut Children's offers dedicated pediatric Urgent Care services including x-ray at the Connecticut Children’s Urgent Care located at 599 Farmington Ave in Farmington, CT. 

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