Elbow bursitis, also called olecranon bursitis, is one of the most common types of bursitis.

The bursa located at the outside of the tip of the elbow, called the olecranon bursa, may become inflamed and swollen. When this happens, it is diagnosed as elbow bursitis or olecranon bursitis. The primary symptoms of elbow bursitis include visible swelling at the very tip of the elbow. Pain may or may not accompany the swelling.

Because it can be caused by repeatedly resting weight on the elbow, olecranon bursitis has earned nicknames such as student’s elbow or miner’s elbow.

What is Elbow Bursitis?

Elbow bursitis occurs in the olecranon bursa, a thin, slippery, fluid-filled sac that serves as a both a cushion and lubricant between the skin and the boney tip of the elbow (the olecranon). The olecranon bursa develops sometime after age 7.1 It is composed of a thin outer membrane, called a synovium, and an inner fluid, called synovial fluid. Bursitis occurs when the synovium becomes irritated and inflamed.

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A severe case of elbow bursitis can cause the inflamed olecranon bursa to swell to 6 or 7 cm long by 2.5 cm wide,2 making it look as if there is small egg or golf ball under the skin. Such visible, site-specific swelling can make elbow bursitis easy to diagnose. Less obvious may be why a particular individual has elbow bursitis and whether the bursitis is septic (caused by infection) or not.

How to Treat Elbow Bursitis?

Most cases of elbow bursitis are not infected and can be effectively treated with self care focused on avoiding activities and positions that will aggravate the condition, as well as rest, ice, elevation, and possibly ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory medications. Some cases of elbow bursitis will be ongoing and require further medical care, such as aspiration of the excess fluid with a needle, injection of a corticosteroid, and rarely, surgery to remove the inflamed bursa.

If the elbow is red or hot, the person has chills or a fever, or if the elbow is tender or painful, then the bursitis may be caused by an infection. This infection is called septic bursitis, and the infected bursa may eventually fill with pus and the infection may spread to other areas of the body. In these cases, prompt medical treatment for the infection is important.

This article provides a comprehensive review of elbow bursitis causes, diagnoses, and full range of treatment options.

References:

  1. Chen J, Alk D, Eventov I, Weintroub S, "Development of the olecranon bursa. An anatomic cadaver study," Acta Orthop Scand, 1987; 58(4):408-409. PMID: 3673537
  2. Quayle JB, Robinson MP, "A useful procedure in the treatment of chronic olecranon bursitis," Injury, 1978;9(4):299-302
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