Pacific Rim Orthopedic Surgeons

Olecranon Bursitis: Elbow Bursitis

Olecranon bursitis, also known as elbow bursitis, is a type of overuse injury where the fluid-filled sac that protects the elbow joint by providing a cushion for it becomes inflamed. At-home treatments for olecranon bursitis are usually sufficient, but more severe cases can require surgery.

What is Elbow Bursitis?

Elbow bursitis is a painful swelling around the elbow joint, specifically the olecranon bursa, which is a fluid-filled sac that surrounds the elbow for protection. Every major joint in the body has a bursa surrounding it, which acts as a kind of shock absorber. When the bursa becomes irritated by overuse, trauma, or an infection, it can cause bursitis to occur.

Causes of Olecranon Bursitis

There are several ways olecranon bursitis can develop, but are commonly caused by:

  • Infections
  • Sudden blows or traumas to the elbow
  • Repetitive motions from work or a hobby, such as in carpentry, raking or gardening, shoveling, tennis, golf, baseball, or painting. 
  • Spending a lot of time in positions that put excessive pressure on the elbows
  • Bone spurs or arthritis

Symptoms of Olecranon Bursitis

Elbow bursitis symptoms can mimic other elbow conditions but primarily include:

  • Elbow pain, whether still or with movement
  • Swelling around the elbow
  • Discoloration and warmth, signs of infection in the bursa specifically

Comparing Sources of Pain

Elbow pain can have an array of causes, leading people to self-diagnose or compare what could be elbow bursitis with other conditions of the elbow:

  • Tennis elbow can be confused with olecranon bursitis because they’re both caused by overuse and result in pain in the elbow. They are distinctly different conditions though, as bursitis is inflammation in the bursa, and tennis elbow is when the tendons of the elbow are torn or inflamed.
  • Elbow cellulitis and olecranon bursitis both cause swelling, but bursitis isn’t an infection (though it can be caused by one), and cellulitis is a non-contagious bacterial infection that causes swelling in the skin and deeper tissues. 
  • Gout is a painful form of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the body, resulting in pain and swelling much like bursitis, except it usually affects the big toes instead of the elbow.

Like most pain, whether in the elbow or elsewhere in the body, it’s a sign that something is wrong, and it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about it to ensure a proper diagnosis. 

Olecranon Bursitis Treatment & Diagnosis

For a bursitis diagnosis, a healthcare provider will perform a physical exam and listen to the symptoms the patient describes. If the doctor suspects the elbow bursitis to be caused by an infection or they want to rule out other potential causes of the elbow pain, a few tests may be ordered to help confirm the bursitis:

  • X-ray
  • Ultrasound
  • MRI
  • Blood tests
  • Fluid sample from the bursa

Elbow bursitis treatment depends on whether or not it is caused by an infection. If the bursitis wasn’t a result of an infection, the doctor will likely recommend home treatments:

  • Avoiding activities that caused the bursitis so that it has a chance to heal
  • Over-the-counter NSAIDs to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Using a splint or brace to stop the elbow from moving and allowing it to heal

If the home treatment options don’t provide relief after three to six weeks, the healthcare provider may drain excess fluid from around the bursa. They will also give a corticosteroid injection to reduce inflammation. 

If the bursitis was caused by an infection, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics for a week or so to combat the infection. They may also drain the fluid from the bursa to help remove as much of the infection as possible. 

In rare cases, when the non-surgical treatments fail or the bursa is severely infected surgery may be required. The procedure is an outpatient surgery where the elbow bursa is removed, and a splint or brace is used to hold the elbow in place while it heals. Recovery can take around a month. 

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We at Proliance Pacific Rim Orthopedic Surgeons strive to help our patients achieve a return to normal activity through compassionate and exceptional care using evidence-based medicine in a patient-friendly environment. We are committed to bringing you a high standard of care that is patient-focused, with the goal of improving your quality of life.