Elbow bursitis is an inflammation of the olecranon bursa, a small sac filled with fluid that acts as a cushion between the joints and soft tissues to reduce friction and allow smooth movement. Bursitis can also affect the hip, shoulder, foot or knee, but because of this bursa’s location at the tip of the elbow, it is easily subject to injury or trauma that may cause inflammation to develop.
As an orthopedic doctor who specializes in arm and elbow conditions, I treat many patients with bursitis who are eager to relieve swelling or discomfort and regain full mobility in that area. Questions are both understandable and common as people seek options for relieving their pain, so below, I’ve provided answers to some of the questions I hear most frequently about elbow (or olecranon) bursitis:
What Causes Elbow Bursitis?
Elbow bursitis occurs when the bursa becomes inflamed or irritated, generally because of an injury or excessive pressure on the tissue. For example:
- A hard blow to the elbow or falling onto the back of it can commonly cause bursitis to develop.
- Over a period of several months, too much leaning on your elbow or resting it on hard surfaces can place added stress on the bursa.
- Other possible contributors are arthritis, gout, kidney conditions or an infection.
- Sometimes elbow bursitis can occur without an obvious or known cause.
What are the Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis?
In many cases, the first sign of elbow bursitis is swelling at the bony tip of the elbow. Discomfort or tenderness at the back of the elbow may occur, although it’s not unusual for elbow bursitis to cause little or no pain. There may be a decreased ability to bend or stretch the elbow. An infection could result in redness or warmth to the touch.
How is Elbow Bursitis Treated?
Conservative methods and therapies usually help with elbow bursitis. Nonsurgical treatment options include:
- Rest: Give the inflammation time to subside. Avoid activities that could put pressure on the elbow and aggravate the condition.
- NSAIDs: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen can help with swelling and discomfort.
- Ice: Applying an ice pack for about 15 minutes several times a day can be quite effective.
- Protection: An elbow pad or wrap can keep the joint cushioned while the tissue heals.
- Compression: An elastic compression bandage can be gently wrapped around the elbow to help reduce inflammation.
- Elevation: Keeping your elbow above your heart can help minimize swelling.
- Aspiration: Having a healthcare provider drain the fluid from the bursa may help relieve pressure if symptoms are not improving after several weeks, or if an infection is suspected.
- Steroid injections: Injecting a corticosteroid into the bursa may relieve bursitis symptoms quickly. This type of injection may be provided at the same time as aspiration for some patients. For many patients, more than one injection may be necessary.
- Physical therapy: Your doctor may recommend exercises or strengthening activities, either with a therapist or at home, to help improve and maintain your range of motion.
Is Surgery Necessary for Elbow Bursitis?
Surgery is rarely required for elbow bursitis, but if conservative methods of treatment are not effective – especially if an infection is present – the bursa can be removed arthroscopically with small incisions. The olecranon bursa is located just inside the skin, so the elbow joint is not involved in the surgical procedure. Your doctor may recommend a sling after surgery to keep the arm immobilized for healing.
Can Elbow Bursitis be Prevented?
In all matters of health, prevention is ideal. To decrease your risk of developing elbow bursitis:
- Avoid putting excessive or repeated pressure on the joint; use cushioning if you do lean on your elbows for a long period of time
- Stretch and warm up before activity or exercise
- A strengthening and flexibility regimen for the arm and elbow area can be helpful
- Do your best to avoid hard hits to the elbow
If you are experiencing elbow bursitis or another condition causing elbow pain, call us at 913-319-7600 for more information or expert recommendations on treatment.
About the Author
Mark J. Winston, M.D., is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hand, wrist and upper extremity surgery as well as sports medicine. Before joining Dickson-Diveley Orthopaedics, Dr. Winston completed a hand and upper extremity fellowship at the Hospital for Special Surgery/Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
The medical information contained in the Dickson-Diveley Orthopaedics website is provided to increase your knowledge and understanding of orthopedic conditions. This information should not be interpreted as a recommendation for a specific medical or surgical treatment plan. As each patient may have specific symptoms or associated problems, the treatment regimen for a specific patient may not be the proper treatment for another.
Gaining knowledge and understanding of a particular problem or condition is the first step in any medical treatment plan. I believe the information presented on our website will be helpful for those individuals experiencing hand and wrist diseases, injuries, or other related problems. However, this information is not intended to replace the advice of your family physician. You are encouraged to consult with your physician to discuss any course of treatment presented or suggested.