Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis

Overview

What is elbow bursitis?

Elbow bursitis is painful swelling around your elbow joint. Specifically, it’s inflammation in the olecranon bursa — the fluid-filled sac that surrounds and protects your elbow.

All the big joints in your body are surrounded by a bursa. They act as cushions and shock absorbers between your bones and your muscles, tendons or skin. Bursitis happens when a bursa gets irritated by overuse, damaged from trauma or during an infection.

The pain from an inflamed bursa may be sudden or build up over time.

Elbow bursitis vs. tennis elbow

Elbow bursitis and tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) both cause pain in your elbow. They can both also be caused by overuse. Bursitis is inflammationin the bursa around your elbow. Tennis elbow happens when the tendons in your elbows are inflamed or torn.

Elbow bursitis vs. elbow cellulitis

Cellulitis is a non-contagious bacterial infection. It causes swelling in your skin and deeper tissues around the infected part of your body. Both bursitis and cellulitis cause swelling, but bursitis isn’t an infection.

Elbow bursitis vs. gout

Gout is a painful form of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in your body. It causes pain and swelling like bursitis, but it usually affects your big toes. Gout’s symptoms are caused when sharp uric acid crystals collect in your joints. The pain and swelling from bursitis are caused by inflammation in your fluid-filled olecranon bursa.

Gout — and other types of arthritis — can be a cause of bursitis.

No matter what’s causing pain or swelling, talk to your healthcare provider if you notice any new symptoms in or around your elbow.

Who does elbow bursitis affect?

Elbow bursitis can affect anyone, but certain groups of people are more likely to develop it, including:

  • People with physical jobs: If your job requires you to be on your hands and knees a lot — or to lean on your elbows frequently — you’re more likely to develop elbow bursitis over time.
  • Athletes or people with certain hobbies: Sports or other activities that require you do repetitive motions with your elbows and arms can increase pressure on your elbow’s bursa. Musicians also have a higher risk for elbow bursitis.
  • People with certain medical conditions: You’re more likely to develop elbow bursitis if you have conditions like arthritis, diabetes or thyroid disease.

How common is elbow bursitis?

Elbow bursitis is fairly common. More than two-thirds of cases are non-infectious bursitis caused by trauma or sports injuries.

How does elbow bursitis affect my body?

In addition to symptoms like pain and swelling, elbow bursitis makes it hard to use your elbow like you usually can. If the swelling in your olecranon bursa is caused by an injury to your arm, your bursa might be bleeding inside your body.

It might be hard or painful to do daily activities you’re used to while you’re experiencing symptoms.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms of elbow bursitis?

Symptoms of elbow bursitis include:

  • Swelling around your elbow.
  • Pain, including when you move your elbow.
  • Discoloration and warmth (if the bursitis is caused by an infection).

What causes elbow bursitis?

Causes of elbow bursitis include:

  • Repetitive motions at work or during a hobby (like a baseball pitcher throwing a baseball).
  • Spending a lot of time in positions that put pressure on your elbows.
  • Infections.
  • Traumas or a sudden blow to your elbow.

Common activities that can lead to bursitis

  • Carpentry.
  • Gardening and raking.
  • Painting.
  • Poor posture.
  • Bone spurs or arthritis in your elbow.
  • Scrubbing.
  • Shoveling.
  • Sports like tennis, golf and baseball.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is elbow bursitis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will diagnose elbow bursitis with a physical exam. They’ll listen to your symptoms and examine your elbow.

If your provider suspects your bursitis is caused by an infection (also known as septic bursitis), or if they want to rule out other causes for the pain in your elbow, you might need a few tests including:

Management and Treatment

How is elbow bursitis treated?

How elbow bursitis is treated depends on if it’s caused by an infection.

If you don’t have an infection, you’ll probably only need at-home treatments. These include:

  • Rest: Avoiding the activity that caused your bursitis will help it heal.
  • Medications: Over-the-counter NSAIDs will help reduce the pain and inflammation caused by bursitis.
  • Immobilization: Stopping your elbow from moving with a splint or brace can help it heal.

If these treatments don’t work after three to six weeks, your provider might remove the excess fluid around your bursa (called aspiration) and give you a corticosteroid injection to reduce the inflammation.

Septic bursitis treatment

If you have an infection, your healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotics. You’ll need to take pills for around a week. Make sure to take your antibiotics for as long as your provider prescribes. Even if your symptoms improve, you need to take antibiotics for the length of time they were prescribed to make sure the medicine can kill all the infection remaining in your body.

Your provider might also aspirate your bursa to remove as much of the infected fluid as possible.

Elbow bursitis surgery

It’s rare to need surgery for elbow bursitis. If your symptoms don’t respond to non-surgical treatments — or if you have a severe infection that doesn’t get better after taking antibiotics — you might need surgery.

Surgery to remove your elbow bursa is an outpatient procedure, which means you’ll be able to go home the same day. After surgery, you’ll need a splint or brace to hold your elbow in place while it heals. You’ll need around a month to recover.

How long does elbow bursitis last?

Most cases of elbow bursitis heal with rest and other at-home treatments in three to six weeks.

If you have an infection, you should feel better as soon as you start taking your antibiotics. It’s important to finish your full dose, even if your symptoms improve.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk of elbow bursitis?

The best way to prevent elbow bursitis is to avoid overusing your elbow as much as possible.

Give your body time to rest and recover between sessions of intense exercise or activity. If your job or hobbies require you to use your elbows a lot, make sure you’re using all the proper protective equipment, like wearing elbow pads.

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have elbow bursitis?

You should expect to make a full recovery if you have elbow bursitis. Even if it’s caused by an infection, bursitis shouldn’t have any long-term impacts on your health or life.

Do I need to miss work or school while recovering from elbow bursitis?

If you can do your job or schoolwork without putting stress on your elbow, you shouldn’t need to miss work or school while recovering.

However, if your job or any of your activities are the cause of your bursitis, you might need to modify your routine while your elbow heals. Talk to your provider about a recovery timeline for your specific symptoms.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

Make sure to give your body the time it needs to heal while you’re recovering from elbow bursitis. Don’t work or play through pain. Even if your symptoms start to improve, don’t rush back to sports or other activities, especially if they were the direct cause of your bursitis.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Talk to your provider if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Pain that interferes with your day-to-day activities.
  • Soreness that doesn’t improve in a few days.
  • Fever.
  • Discoloration, swelling or warmth around your elbow.
  • Bursitis that comes back (recurs).

When should I go to ER?

Go to the emergency room right away if you’ve experienced a trauma or if any fluid is draining from your elbow.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

Is my bursitis caused by an infection?

  • Do I need to take a break from any activities?
  • How long do I need to avoid those activities?
  • Will I need a splint or brace?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Elbow bursitis is a common condition that is often caused by the work you do or the activities you love. Knowing that your daily routine is causing you pain can be frustrating, but bursitis is usually quick to heal and often doesn’t require special treatment. Make sure not to ignore any new symptoms — especially pain or swelling. Taking a short break from the activity that caused your bursitis is usually all you’ll need to do to treat your symptoms.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/16/2022.

References

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Elbow (olecranon) bursitis. (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/elbow-olecranon-bursitis/) Accessed 12/28/2021.
  • MedlinePlus. Bursitis. (https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000419.htm) Accessed 12/28/2021.
  • StatPearls. Olecranon bursitis. (https://www.statpearls.com/ArticleLibrary/viewarticle/26147) Accessed 12/28/2021.

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