The bursa in the elbow lies just beneath the skin, and its delicate membrane can be easily irritated and inflamed, leading to a condition called elbow bursitis. Elbow bursitis can have a variety of underlying causes, ranging from an acute injury to the elbow to a systemic disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Elbow injury or trauma
A fall or a blow to the elbow can cause the bursa to fill with blood, which may irritate and inflame the bursa's synovial membrane. Even though the body reabsorbs the blood, the membrane may stay inflamed, causing bursitis symptoms.
Repetitive pressure on the elbow
Bursitis can be caused by frequent "mini-traumas," which can cause the same problems as a single, more serious trauma. People who rest their elbows on hard surfaces are more likely to get elbow bursitis. Repeatedly resting weight on the elbows may especially increase risk.
History of inflammation of the olecranon bursa
Once a bursa has been inflamed, it can become more easily inflamed again in the future. Therefore, patients who have had elbow bursitis in the past have an increased chance of developing it again.
Another underlying condition
Elbow bursitis is more likely to occur in people who have certain medical conditions, such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and pseudogout. Experts estimate that anywhere from 33% to 74% of people with elbow bursitis have another associated medical condition.1,2 Increased risk may be related to a condition itself or to medications used to treat a condition.3
When the bursa is infected, the condition is called septic bursitis. Infectious bacteria or other microbes can reach the olecranon bursa through a cut, puncture or even an insect bite at the elbow. It is possible to have septic bursitis without an obvious cut or scrape; sometimes the root cause of infection is unknown.
In addition, certain medical conditions and medications suppress people's immune systems and make them more susceptible to developing septic bursitis.6 For example, people with diabetes, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more likely to get septic bursitis.