Thumbnail image of: Elbow Bursitis: Illustration

Elbow Bursitis

What is elbow bursitis?

Bursitis is irritation and swelling of a bursa. A bursa is a fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion between bone and other tissues, such as skin, muscle, tendons, or ligaments. Tendons are strong bands of tissue that attach muscle to bone. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect one bone to another to form the joints.

The bursa in your elbow is located between the loose skin and the point of the elbow bone at the back of your elbow. A bursa that is only mildly irritated may improve within a few weeks with treatment. A bursa that is very swollen and irritated, or has been painful for a long time, may take months to improve.

What is the cause?

Common causes include:

  • Injury to your elbow, for example, from a fall
  • Overuse injuries of your elbow during sports, work, or hobbies. For example, elbow bursitis is more common in students who lean their elbows on their desks a lot over several months, or in people who have a job where they have to crawl into tight spaces on their knees and elbows (such as plumbers or furnace repair technicians.)
  • Infection from a cut or a scrape on the skin over a bursa

Other possible causes or risk factors for developing elbow bursitis include:

  • Arthritis, which is pain and swelling of a joint
  • Gout or pseudogout, which is pain and swelling caused by a buildup of crystals in your joints and under your skin
  • An autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, which causes your body to mistakenly attack your own tissue

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling and redness at the back of your elbow
  • Mild pain in your elbow, especially when you bend or straighten it
  • Stiffness or trouble moving your elbow

If the bursa is infected, you may have a fever or the swollen area may feel warm.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • An ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the joint
  • Joint aspiration, which uses a needle and syringe to remove a sample of fluid from the bursa. The fluid can be checked for infection and other causes of the bursitis. Removing some of the fluid can also help the pain.

You may have tests or scans to check for other possible causes of your symptoms, such as blood tests, X-rays, or an MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the joint

How is it treated?

To relieve symptoms of bursitis:

  • You may need to change or stop doing the activities that cause pain until the bursa has healed. Do not put any pressure on the sore area while it is swollen.
  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on the area every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time to help relieve pain.
  • Wear a compression wrap around the elbow while the bursa is swollen.
  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Protect your elbow with a pad.

If bursitis is caused by an infection or disease such as gout, treating the disease may also help the bursitis.

If you keep having symptoms:

  • Your healthcare provider may remove fluid from the swollen area with a needle and syringe. Your provider may then wrap the elbow or put a splint on it to keep fluid from refilling the area and to prevent you from moving it.
  • Your provider may inject the inflamed area with a steroid medicine and a local anesthetic so you will have less swelling, redness, and pain.
  • Your provider may recommend surgery to take out the bursa if the joint keeps bothering you even after treatment.

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent elbow bursitis?

You may need to change or stop doing activities that cause pain. Follow safety rules and use any protective equipment recommended for your work or sport. Elbow bursitis can be best prevented by avoiding direct contact to the point of your elbow. It is important not to irritate the bursa by leaning your elbow onto a surface such as a table or a desk.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-10-06
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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