Bursitis Elbow Causes, Prevention, and Treatment | PreferredMD
Orthopedic Surgery

Bursitis Elbow Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

Condition • By Biraj Patel

Elbow bursitis, also known as olecranon bursitis, is a condition in which the bursa sac located at the tip of the elbow becomes inflamed and swollen. The bursa sac is a fluid-filled sac that helps the elbow joint move smoothly. This condition is relatively common and can cause pain and swelling in the elbow. 

Bursitis elbow causes

The causes of elbow bursitis can vary. Acute injuries (trauma) during sports activities can cause elbow bursitis because they can include any action that involves direct trauma to the posterior elbow. 

For example, falling onto a hard floor can cause elbow bursitis. Long-term hemodialysis treatment, uremia, or a mechanical factor (like resting the posterior elbow during a hemodialysis treatment) can be a cause of inflammation. 

Certain medical conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout, are associated with elbow bursitis.

In rare cases, bacteria can enter the bursa sac, leading to an infected olecranon bursa.

Bursitis elbow symptoms

Now, let's talk symptoms. The most common symptom of elbow bursitis is swelling at the posterior elbow. The swelling can be painless, but pressure, like leaning on the elbow or rubbing against a table while writing with the ipsilateral hand, can often exacerbate the pain. Chronic recurrent swelling is usually not tender. A typical symptom of olecranon bursitis is the frequent bumping of the swollen elbow, because it protrudes further than it usually would. 

Patients with chronic superficial bursitis typically present with swelling over the involved bursa and may report associated occupations or activities, but often have minimal or no pain. Other patients, particularly those with acute traumatic/hemorrhagic bursitis or septic bursitis, can present with significant pain, tenderness, and decreased range of motion.

If the bursa becomes infected, you may notice redness and increased warmth in the surrounding skin. Failure to promptly address the infection can lead to its spread to other areas of the arm or even into the bloodstream, potentially resulting in severe illness. In some cases, an infected bursa may spontaneously rupture, releasing pus as a natural drainage mechanism.

Elbow bursitis prevention 

To prevent elbow bursitis, it is important to avoid repetitive motions that put pressure on the elbow. If you have a job that requires you to lean on your elbow for extended periods, take frequent breaks to relieve the pressure. Wearing special elbow pads for bursitis can also help cushion your elbow and prevent the condition. To prevent infection-related bursitis, maintain proper hygiene and care for any open wounds around the elbow.

How bursitis elbow is diagnosed

Diagnosing elbow bursitis typically involves a combination of medical history assessment, physical examination, and diagnostic tests. Here's a breakdown of the process.

Medical history assessment

Your healthcare provider will begin by discussing your symptoms and medical history. They'll ask about the onset of your symptoms, any potential injury or trauma, and your daily activities. This information helps them understand the context of your condition.

Physical examination

A thorough physical examination is conducted to assess the affected elbow. The healthcare provider will examine the swelling, tenderness, and your range of motion in the elbow joint. They may also look for signs of infection, such as redness or warmth in the area.

Imaging studies

In some cases, imaging studies may be ordered to confirm the diagnosis and assess the severity of the condition. X-rays can help rule out other potential causes of elbow pain, such as fractures or arthritis. Ultrasound or MRI scans can provide more detailed images of the bursa and surrounding structures, aiding in the diagnosis and treatment planning.

Aspiration (fluid removal)

If infection is suspected, your healthcare provider may perform a procedure called aspiration, where a sample of the fluid within the bursa is withdrawn using a needle. This fluid can be sent for laboratory analysis to confirm the presence of infection.

Blood tests

In cases of suspected infection, blood tests may be conducted to check for elevated white blood cell counts and markers of inflammation.

The combination of medical history, physical examination, and diagnostic tests helps healthcare professionals accurately diagnose elbow bursitis and determine the most appropriate course of treatment. If an infection is confirmed, it will guide the choice of antibiotics or surgical intervention if necessary.

Elbow bursitis treatment

The treatment for elbow bursitis depends on the severity of the condition. In most cases, nonsurgical treatments are effective. These treatments include:

  • Resting the elbow
  • Applying ice to the elbow
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Wearing a special elbow bursitis brace or compression sleeve
  • Aspiration of the bursa sac

If elbow bursitis is not a result of infection, surgery may still be recommended if nonsurgical treatments do not work. In this case, surgery to remove the bursa is usually performed as an outpatient procedure. The surgery does not disturb any muscle, ligament, or joint.

Elbow bursitis brace

Wearing an elbow brace or compression sleeve can help reduce swelling and provide support to the elbow joint. These braces can be purchased at most drugstores or online.

Elbow bursitis surgery

If nonsurgical treatments do not work, surgery to remove the bursa may be necessary. This surgery is usually performed as an outpatient procedure and does not disturb any muscle, ligament, or joint.

Discuss elbow bursitis treatment with the best orthopedic surgeons on PreferredMD

When dealing with elbow bursitis, seeking the right medical guidance is paramount. Consult the best orthopedic surgeon if your symptoms persist or worsen despite conservative treatments. A specialist can assess your condition and recommend the most appropriate course of action, which may include surgery if necessary.

Elbow bursitis can be a painful hindrance, but with proper care and the guidance of a seasoned orthopedic expert, you can alleviate the agony and restore functionality to your elbow. Remember, early intervention and appropriate treatment are key to a swift recovery.

Share article

More on Orthopedic Surgery