Health News Articles

Sprains vs. Fractures: A Guide to Children's Common Injuries

Sep 13, 2013

Fun on the playground can often lead to injuries for children, whether falling from the monkey bars or taking a wrong turn in a soccer game. Broken bones, sprains and strains are all common injuries among children. Knowing how to spot them is the best way to help children heal faster. 

Telling the Difference
“A fracture is a broken bone, while a sprain involves a stretch or partial tear of ligaments (which connect two bones),” says Harvey Smires, MD . “Strains are injuries to muscles due to overstretching.” 
A fracture is almost always accompanied by a snap or grinding noise. Other symptoms include swelling, bruising or tenderness, difficulty moving the injured part and pain when bearing weight or being touched. 

Children can also be susceptible to a growth plate fracture, a unique injury that can have debilitating consequences if not treated quickly. Because children’s bones heal faster than adults’, treating a growth plate injury as soon as possible is key. 

“Growth plates are areas of developing cartilage tissue near the end of long bones, and are the last parts of the bones to harden once a child is full-grown. Until then, they are soft and susceptible to fracture,” says Dr. Smires, who is board certified in orthopedic surgery. “In fact, up to 30 percent of all childhood fractures are growth plate fractures.” 

Sprains and strains are more common among teens. Signs may include pain in the joint or muscle, redness of the injured area, swelling and bruising, and difficulty moving the injured part. 

When to Seek Care

When a fracture is suspected, see an orthopedic specialist as soon as possible to get treatment before the bone begins to heal. With a severe fracture, call 911 to get immediate care at the nearest emergency facility. 

With a sprain or strain, "RICE" is recommended for the first 48 hours after the injury:

  • Rest. Rest the injured part until pain diminishes.
  • Ice. Wrap an icepack or cold compress in a towel and place over the injured part immediately, for no more than 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day. 
  • Compression. Support the injured part with an elastic compression bandage for at least two days.
  • Elevation. Elevate the injured part above heart level to decrease swelling. 

Doctors recommend ibuprofen or acetamenophin for pain and to reduce swelling. If you are unsure about the type of injury, or if symptoms worsen or fail to improve over five to seven days, call your doctor as soon as possible. 


Children’s bones heal faster than adults’, so they will not have to stay in a cast or splint as long. Mild fractures may simply need a splint or cast for support. More severe fractures may require surgery to realign the bones and then pins, metal implants, or a cast to hold the bones in place while they heal.

To find a doctor or orthopedic specialist with Princeton HealthCare System, call 1.888.742.7496 or visit