The ankle is a hinged synovial joint made up of three bones: the tibia (shin bone), the fibula (outer ankle bone), and the talus (between the heel and leg). These three bones are bound, supported, and stabilized by strong, fibrous bands of tissue called ligaments.
A break in an ankle bone can be either traumatic or stress related. This injury may be referred to as a break or fracture. A traumatic fracture can result from tripping, twisting or rolling the ankle, falling, or by blunt impact to the ankle. These traumatic ankle breaks usually occur during sporting activities or accidents. Stress fractures, however, occur over time and are the result of repetitive stress to the ankle. These fractures sometimes occur when a new activity that engages the ankle is introduced, or when the level of activity is abruptly increased or intensified.
There are various symptoms that accompany an ankle break. The most significant symptoms are pain and swelling that occurs in the ankle and sometimes spreads up from the foot to below the knee. Bruising or discoloration may develop eventually. It will be difficult or even impossible to put weight on the affected foot, and in severe cases there may be a visible deformity or even exposed bone.
It is very important to seek immediate treatment when an ankle break occurs or is suspected to have occurred, in order to allow the bone to properly heal and to avoid future complications such as stiff joints, limited range of motion, and osteoarthritis.
To diagnose a broken ankle, your podiatrist will first ask you to explain how the injury occurred and what your symptoms are. They will perform a thorough examination, checking for damage to nerves, blood vessels, and other structures around the injury site. They will also test your range of motion. An X-ray will need to be reviewed and, in some cases, an MRI or CT scan may be necessary.
Proper treatment of a broken ankle will depend on where and how severe the break is, how stable the ankle is, and whether the bone is displaced (misaligned or separated) or non-displaced (broken yet still aligned properly).
Mild fractures (where the bone is non-displaced) may be treated by resting, icing, and elevating the ankle at first, followed by immobilization with a cast or walking boot. Pain and inflammation may be treated with acetaminophen. More severe or complicated fractures where bones or joints are displaced may require surgery.
Recovery time will also vary, and it may take 4-6 weeks or longer for a broken ankle to heal. Your podiatrist will most likely order progressive X-rays or stress tests to be taken in order to monitor the healing process.