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Olecranon Bursitis: All You Should Know

The bursa is a type of tissue found in joints throughout the body that allows for smooth movement of pointy, bony prominences around the joint. Bursae are found in the hips, shoulders, elbows, and other joints, and can sometimes become irritated and painful due to bursitis. When this inflammation settles in the fluid filled sac in the elbow, the redness, swelling and pain that can result may be olecranon bursitis, also known as elbow bursitis.

What Is the Olecranon?

The olecranon is the pointy bone in the elbow. Olecranon bursa is the sac around this bone that makes it possible for the elbow joint to move smoothly because friction between the skin and olecranon is eliminated. At times, unfortunately, the bursa can become inflamed and swollen, resulting in a condition called bursitis.

What Is Olecranon Bursitis?

Bursitis can happen to any of the bursa in the body. For different reasons the bursa becomes irritated and inflamed, which causes the sac to fill up with excess fluid. The olecranon bursa typically is unnoticeable when it's in good health because it lies flat beneath the skin at your elbow. It's usually up to six centimeters long, but when it becomes affected by bursitis it can become larger than a golf ball, and very noticeable. Bursitis in this area creates a visible bump that earned it the name "Popeye's elbow."

Woman with elbow pain

What Causes Olecranon Bursitis?

Bursitis can be caused by a number of things. One of the most common causes is a traumatic accident where you may have fallen on the back of the elbow. It's also more common in people who frequently rest their elbows on hard surfaces, like plumbers or HVAC technicians. Other health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or kidney failure make it more likely for elbow bursitis to develop. In some cases, infected bursitis may develop if bacteria enter an injury near the elbow. Unfortunately, bursitis can sometimes develop with no apparent reason, as well.

What Are the Symptoms?

Typically, the first sign of olecranon bursitis is swelling in the elbow. This can be minor, or progress to the point that it looks like there's a ball on the end of the elbow. There's also often pain when the elbows are bent due to the stretching bursa, but there may not be any pain at all with the arm straightened. If you suspect you have elbow bursitis, be sure to watch for signs of infected bursa in addition to the other symptoms. Infected bursitis is more common in those with rheumatoid arthritis or gout. If you experience chills, sweats, fever, redness, or broken skin around the swollen elbow, you could have an infected bursa.

Elbow doctor and technician examine patient for elbow pain

How Is It Diagnosed?

Bursitis can usually be diagnosed with a simple examination by your physician, although other tests like X-rays or MRIs may be done to rule out any other causes of swelling and tenderness.

How Is It Treated?

Fortunately, treating elbow bursitis can begin at home. Non-infected bursitis can be managed by resting the elbow, applying ice for short periods of time, and avoiding the activities that may have contributed to its development in the first place. Anti-inflammatory medications can help relieve the pain while you wait for time to heal the bursa. If the bursitis-related pain or other symptoms persist for more than three to six weeks, you will want to contact the orthopedic specialists at OrthoAtlanta to schedule an appointment. Following a physical examination, your physician may recommend various treatment options, either surgical or non-surgical, such as removing fluid from the bursa, corticosteroid injections to relieve pain and swelling, or ultrasound.

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