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What is Elbow Bursitis?

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT May 15, 2020 0 Comments

Woman with Elbow Bursitis

Elbow bursitis is a lesser-known injury caused by inflammation of the olecranon bursa. Bursae are enclosed pockets of fluid located throughout the body in high friction areas to provide protection. The olecranon bursa in the elbow is located between the skin and the prominent bony process at the tip of the elbow.

Bursitis occurs when inflammation, pain, and fluid accumulation occur at the bursa itself. The superficial location and lack of sufficient blood flow to the olecranon bursa makes this particular area susceptible to injury and swelling.  

What Causes Elbow Bursitis?

There are several reasons elbow bursitis can occur. These include any of the following:

  • Direct trauma

    A blow to the elbow from high impact sports, a fall, or any other direct trauma can injure the elbow bursa and lead to inflammation.

  • Extended pressure

    Any position that puts prolonged pressure on the elbow can lead to problems. Examples are consistent propping on the elbows, like when sitting at a desk, or certain jobs that require crawling on the hands and knees.

  • Inflammatory disease

    Certain chronic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, HIV, gout, psoriatic arthritis, and diabetes predispose the elbow to injury.

  • A wound leading to infection

    Breaking of the skin at the elbow from a scrape, or even a bug bite, can lead to heat, pain, and swelling secondary to infection within the bursa itself.

What are the Symptoms?

There are three primary symptoms associated with elbow bursitis.

  • Swelling

    One of the more obvious initial signs is swelling around the tip of the elbow. However, it may be subtle at first since the skin around the elbow is loose.

  • Pain

    Tenderness to touch or pain with movement of the elbow is common. If swelling and pain progress, it can also limit the range of motion.

  • Heat

    If the bursa becomes infected, it may become red and warm to palpation. Infection can be a serious issue so make sure you and your physician keep a close eye on it.

Diagnosis

Most often, a diagnosis of elbow bursitis can be done without any imaging. An in-depth history and physical exam are usually enough to diagnose. A physical exam typically includes palpation, range of motion, and a strength assessment to rule out other potential issues with the elbow.

If further testing is needed to determine the severity of the bursitis or rule out other elbow related problems, such as a fracture or systemic infection, imaging such as an x-ray may be utilized. Additionally, your physician may take a fluid sample to assess for issues like gout or infection.

How Long Does it Take to Go Away?

Treatment is usually straightforward with elbow bursitis. Conservative treatments that you can do at home are typically very effective with options like rest, minimizing pressure on the elbow, massage, and ice. If needed, you can seek guidance from a physician or physical therapist. If there is an infection or a significant amount of inflammation, then more invasive options like surgery or injections may be necessary as well.

When bursitis is addressed with rest and activity modification, you can expect a general recovery time of 3 to 6 weeks. Typically, this is more than enough time to feel better and get back to normal daily activities. If more invasive treatment is needed recovery time may be a few weeks longer.

When to See a Doctor

The biggest concern with elbow bursitis is its effect on your quality of life and the possibility of infection. If you notice any of these sudden changes in symptoms seek medical care immediately and bring these symptoms to your physician’s attention.

  • Severe swelling or pain
  • Warmth to the touch
  • Streaks of red leaving the elbow and going up the arm
  • Fever
  • General lethargy or fatigue
  • Any other symptoms you can’t explain

Managing Elbow Bursitis

Now that you understand the cause, symptoms, diagnostic and treatment options for elbow bursitis, you can have peace of mind for the recovery process. With the right awareness and guidance, your elbow should be able to heal quickly without complications.

SHOP ARM & ELBOW PRODUCTS

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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