In the somewhat recent past I sprained my ankle during a great late Spring marathon appropriately named the Twisted Ankle Trail Marathon. After stepping on a large root in the trail I turned my foot under, thus the awful popping sound followed by shooting pain in my ankle. I continued to run because I was still miles into the middle of the woods of Georgia. Less than two miles later I had turned my ankle twice more because it could no longer support the stress of running on such a challenging surface. After a few days of limping around, the black bruising set in. Fortunately, my injuries were no more severe than a mildly sprained ankle and didn't involve a serious car wreck which is usually what I see as a personal injury attorney.
No less than 20 times I was approached by friends with the same comment, "You know, a sprained ankle can be worse than a broken bone." After about the 4th person said it I wanted to call them Captain Obvious, but they were genuinely concerned so I refrained. Another reason I bit my tongue was because I wasn't really sure, after all, I've made the same comment to others without really doing the research. As it turns out, the answer is "sort of".
The initial trauma to a broken bone is clearly worse than the trauma to tendons and ligaments in what is traditionally called a sprain/strain. The pain; however, is said to be worse in a sprain due to the fact that damage to pain receptors is likely to be greater with a sprain/strain. The time it takes to heal a broken bone is generally longer than that of a sprained ankle, though some claim that some sprains never really heal and remain painful for up to a year or two. Most broken bones take 8 to 12 weeks to heal; whereas the average sprain takes about 4 to 6 weeks to heal.
So why do people say that a sprain is worse than a broken bone and may require surgery to repair? Most likely, because they are loosely calling a torn ligament a sprained ankle; however, there is a difference between the two. A sprained ankle most often involves hyper stretching or micro tearing to the anterior talofibular ligament; whereas, a torn ligament is just that, torn, sometimes completely severed. Technically a mild sprain/strain is a minor tear to the ligament; however, a severely torn ligament is seldom referred to as a severely sprained ankle.
Thus, the answer seems to be in the severity of how sprained a ligament may be. If a severely sprained ligament is completely severed and requires surgical intervention, that would appear much worse than a common broken bone; however, a compound fracture, also requiring surgery would be far worse than a common sprain. If the average broken bone is compared to the average sprained ankle then the broken bones wins, but beyond that it clearly depends on severity of injury. So it seems that common sense is the deciding factor in severity. For that reason, I will remove the sprain versus break conversation from my vocabulary. I think we have all heard it enough.