Ankle and Wrist Injuries: Facts and Best Fixes

Breaks vs. sprains, first aid and when to see your doctor
wrist with ace bandage

By: Joseph Scarcella, MD

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We often throw ourselves into our favorite outdoor activities without a thought. We all want to make the most of comfortable temperatures and milder weather. But skating through the park, running a wooded trail or conditioning for football season all carry a risk of ankle and wrist fractures. Even a misstep off a curb or a fall on an outstretched hand can break bones in these complex joints.

Any time there is a high force or impact to bone, a fracture can occur. This is particularly true when it comes to the smaller bones that make up your wrist and ankle joints.

Is it a fracture or a sprain?

It’s usually not clear right away whether an injury to a wrist or ankle is a fracture or a sprain. A sprain occurs when the ligaments that support the joint are stretched beyond their normal ability. The ligaments sometimes can even tear. A sprain is often just as painful as a fracture. It can also cause just as much swelling.

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A fracture is immediately obvious when there’s a deformity to the ankle or wrist. That means something is pointing in an unnatural way or “just doesn’t look right.” Otherwise, we need to take an X-ray to distinguish between a fracture and a sprain.

What to do when you suspect a fracture

Head to an emergency room or to your doctor if you think you’ve broken your ankle or wrist. They’ll order an X-ray to confirm a fracture then refer you to an orthopedic surgeon who can determine how to treat it.

In the meantime, the RICE method will help to ease your pain and swelling:

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  • Rest: Avoid using that joint.
  • Ice: Apply ice packs for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Do this three to four times a day.
  • Compression: Wrap the wrist or ankle with a bandage.
  • Elevation: Keep the injured joint above heart level as much as possible.

Tried-and-true treatments

Some of the most common treatments for broken wrists and ankles are ones we’ve used for years.

Depending on the type, location and severity of the fracture, we may use:

  • A cast
  • Reduction: A method of repositioning bone before casting
  • Surgery: This may be required to re-align the bones. It may require using plates and/or screws to hold the fracture in place.

After your injury heals, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy. To achieve full recovery, physical therapy is important. This will help you get the joint back in action and working as well as it did before the injury.

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