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The quick answer is, unless you are a specialist, you can’t. They both can have similar symptoms, but a board-certified orthopaedic foot and ankle doctor can best determine which it is.
Sprained ankles commonly occur about 25,000 times every day. They can occur in sports, stepping on an uneven surface, or simply stepping down at an angle.
The ankle ligaments protect the ankle joint by holding the bones and joint in position. The ligament is elastic, and normally prevents the twisting, turning, and rolling of the foot. A sprain results when the ligament is forced to stretch beyond its normal range. When a sprain is severe, the elastic fibers actually tear. Severe pain and instability may result if sprains are not properly treated.
Mechanism of Injury
With severe in- or out-turning of the foot, the ligaments stretch beyond their normal length, and can tear. You may even hear a “pop” if excessive force is applied to the ankle’s soft tissue, resulting in pain and swelling.
Sprains are categorized in 3 grades, depending on the amount of force:
• Grade 1 is a mild sprain (slight stretching and some damage to ligament fibers)
• Grade 2 is a moderate sprain (partial tearing of the ligament and abnormal ankle joint looseness)
• Grade 3 is severe (complete ligament tear with gross instability)