Elbow (Olecranon) Bursitis Symptoms

The most common symptom of elbow bursitis is swelling at the back of the elbow. Because it is difficult to see and the skin on the tip of the elbow is loose, some people do not notice swelling right away.

Below is a list of common signs and symptoms of elbow bursitis. Recognizing and treating symptoms early can prevent bursitis from becoming chronic.

  • Localized swelling. Normally the olecranon bursa is flat. An inflamed olecranon bursa swells up with fluid, and this enlargement can be felt and seen through the skin. An olecranon bursa can swell to 6 or 7 cm long by 2.5 cm wide,2 resulting in an obvious bump.

    People with severe cases of elbow bursitis may experience “sympathetic” swelling within the elbow joint itself.3 Individuals with aseptic bursitis may even experience swelling extending all the way to the forearm.4

  • May or may not include local tenderness. Most patients with non-infected (aseptic) elbow bursitis do not report tenderness, but 20 to 45 percent do.3,5 People with septic elbow bursitis are more likely to experience tenderness.
  • Pain. Initially, the swelling may not be accompanied by pain, and some people with elbow bursitis never experience any pain. However, as the olecranon bursa swells larger and larger it may cause pain or discomfort, particularly during extreme bending or straightening.
  • Full range of motion. Elbow bursitis usually does not limit joint movement. In more severe cases the swollen bursa may make it difficult to completely straighten or extremely flex the elbow.
  • Warm to the touch. The temperature of the skin over the inflamed bursa will be warmer than elsewhere, particularly in septic bursitis.5
  • Redness. The skin over the inflamed bursa will be pink or red, particularly in septic bursitis.
  • Fever. Fever or chills in addition to other bursitis symptoms can be a sign of septic bursitis. Septic bursitis is a serious condition and patients should seek medical care to ensure the infection does not spread.

Septic bursitis warrants prompt medical care to treat the infection, so it is advisable to go to the doctor if there is any concern that one’s elbow bursitis may be infected.


References:

  1. Quayle JB, Robinson MP, "A useful procedure in the treatment of chronic olecranon bursitis," Injury, 1978;9(4):299-302.
  2. Ho G Jr, Tice AD, "Comparison of nonseptic and septic bursitis: Further observations on the treatment of septic bursitis," Arch Intern Med, 1979;139(11)1269-1273.
  3. Canoso JJ, Yood RA, "Reaction of superficial bursae in response to specific disease stimuli," Arthritis Rheum, 1979;22(12):1361-1364.
  4. David L. Smith; John H. McAfee; Linda M. Lucas; Kusum L. Kumar; Doug M. Romney, "Septic and nonseptic olecranon bursitis. Utility of the surface temperature probe in the early differentiation of septic and nonseptic cases," (Abstract only) Arch Intern Med, 1989;149(7):1581-1585. PMID 2742432.
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Article written by: Ana Bracilovic, MD
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