A broken ankle is also known as an ankle “fracture.” This means that one or more of the bones that make up the ankle joint are broken.
A fractured ankle can range from a simple break in one bone, which may not stop you from walking, to several fractures, which forces your ankle out of place and may require that you not put weight on it for a few months.
Simply put, the more bones that are broken, the more unstable the ankle becomes. There may be ligaments damaged as well. The ligaments of the ankle hold the ankle bones and joint in position.
Broken ankles affect people of all ages. During the past 30 to 40 years, doctors have noted an increase in the number and severity of broken ankles, due in part to an active, older population of “baby boomers.”
Three bones make up the ankle joint:
- Tibia – shinbone
- Fibula – smaller bone of the lower leg
- Talus – a small bone that sits between the heel bone (calcaneus) and the tibia and fibula
The tibia and fibula have specific parts that make up the ankle:
- Medial malleolus – inside part of the tibia
- Posterior malleolus – back part of the tibia
- Lateral malleolus – end of the fibula
Two joints are involved in ankle fractures:
- Ankle joint – where the tibia, fibula, and talus meet
- Syndesmosis joint – the joint between the tibia and fibula, which is held together by ligaments
Multiple ligaments help make the ankle joint stable.
- Twisting or rotating your ankle
- Rolling your ankle
- Tripping or falling
- Impact during a car accident
Because a severe ankle sprain can feel the same as a broken ankle, every ankle injury should be evaluated by a physician.
Common symptoms for a broken ankle include:
- Immediate and severe pain
- Tender to touch
- Cannot put any weight on the injured foot
- Deformity (“out of place”), particularly if the ankle joint is dislocated as well
Medical History and Physical Examination
After discussing your medical history, symptoms, and how the injury occurred, your doctor will do a careful examination of your ankle, foot, and lower leg.
If your doctor suspects an ankle fracture, he or she will order additional tests to provide more information about your injury.
X-rays. X-rays are the most common and widely available diagnostic imaging technique. X-rays can show if the bone is broken and whether there is displacement (the gap between broken bones). They can also show how many pieces of broken bone there are. X-rays may be taken of the leg, ankle, and foot to make sure nothing else is injured.
Stress test. Depending on the type of ankle fracture, the doctor may put pressure on the ankle and take a special x-ray, called a stress test. This x-ray is done to see if certain ankle fractures require surgery.
Computed tomography (CT) scan. This type of scan can create a cross-section image of the ankle and is sometimes done to further evaluate the ankle injury. It is especially useful when the fracture extends into the ankle joint.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. These tests provide high resolution images of both bones and soft tissues, like ligaments. For some ankle fractures, an MRI scan may be done to evaluate the ankle ligaments.
You may not require surgery if your ankle is stable, meaning the broken bone is not out of place or just barely out of place. A stress x-ray may be done to see if the ankle is stable. The type of treatment required may also be based on where the bone is broken.
Several different methods are used for protecting the fracture while it heals. ranging from a high-top tennis shoe to a short leg cast. Some physicians let patients put weight on their leg right away, while others have them wait for 6 weeks.
You will see your physician regularly to repeat your ankle x-rays to make sure the fragments of your fracture have not moved out of place during the healing process.
If the fracture is out of place or your ankle is unstable, your fracture may be treated with surgery. During this type of procedure, the bone fragments are first repositioned (reduced) into their normal alignment. They are held together with special screws and metal plates attached to the outer surface of the bone. In some cases, a screw or rod inside the bone may be used to keep the bone fragments together while they heal.