How do I know if I have arthritis, a sprain, or a fracture?

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Courtesy of DHR Health

By: Dr. Patrick Sander, DHR Health Orthopedic Institute

Arthritis, sprains, and broken bones all have one thing in common. They each cause pain.  It would be easy to assume fractures cause more pain than a sprain or an arthritic flare up but this is not always true.   All can cause mild, moderate or severe pain? So how do you know the difference? Well, you may not and this is why many people choose the advice of a medical professional to answer this question.

A skilled practitioner will start with a history and physical examination. How did the pain arise and what started the symptoms?  Are there significant trauma points towards fractures and sprains? Is there overuse with pain and joint swelling points, more towards arthritis?  Imaging such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI can aid in diagnosis and treatment and are routinely used.  The goal of any health care provider is to ask direct questions and perform a focused physical examination that helps arrive at an appropriate diagnosis.


Arthritis comes in many forms but by definition affects joints. Joint pain, swelling, grinding, and stiffness are common.  Commonly affected joints are the shoulders, hips, knees and spine, however other joints can be affected. Nonsurgical treatments such as rest, topical creams, anti-inflammatory medications, braces, and physical therapy can be beneficial.  Injections can be successfully used for acute joint pain relief, as well.   Surgery such as arthroscopy or joint replacement is reserved for those patients who have severe disease and have failed nonsurgical methods.


Sprains are very common and milder forms are often treated successfully with rest, ice, elevation, compressive wraps, and bracing. Sprains with persistent pain or swelling will need an x-ray to confirm that no fracture is present.  Higher grade sprains need longer periods of rest for ligament healing (6-8 weeks). Appropriate bracing and focused rehabilitation for strengthening, balance, and range of motion are the key to a complete recovery.  This is usually best done with the help of a knowledgeable trainer or physical therapist. For those injuries with long-term pain or instability, bracing or surgical repair and surgical reconstruction remain options.


Fractures come in all varieties and can be a cause of significant pain and disability. After significant trauma an X-ray can diagnose most fractures and CT scans or an MRI will diagnose the rest. Fortunately, most fractures can be successfully treated without surgery and will heal with appropriate immobilization in a cast or brace. For those fractures that have significant displacement or instability, surgery is often warranted. For those fractures that require surgery the goal is appropriate fracture alignment and fixation to ensure the best chance for healing and full recovery.

In summary, ailments of the musculoskeletal system can be routine and short lived to painful and life-changing. For the minor sprains and arthritic flare ups many home remedies are successful and appropriate. For those that prove to be more problematic it is best to seek the advice of a medical professional.

If you would like more information or to schedule an appointment for a consultation, please call DHR Health Orthopedic Institute at (956) 362-6683.