Visible swelling of the elbow may be caused by elbow bursitis. It occurs when the bursa located at the tip of the elbow, called the olecranon bursa, becomes inflamed and swollen. Pain and tenderness may or may not accompany the swelling.
In This Article:
What Is Elbow Bursitis?
The olecranon bursa is a tiny, fluid filled sac located beneath the skin at the elbow’s bony tip. It is named after the olecranon, the rounded end of the forearm’s ulna bone.
A bursa is a thin, slippery, fluid-filled sac composed of:
- A thin outer membrane, called the synovial membrane or synovium
- An inner fluid, called synovial fluid
The purpose of a bursa is to reduce friction between a bone and skin or another soft tissue. There are more than 140 bursae in the body, 1 Azar FM, Beaty JH, Canale TS, eds. Campbell’s Operative Othopaedics, 13th ed., vol 1, page 482. Philadelphia PA: Elsevier; 2017. and the olecranon bursa is one of the most prone to inflammation. 2 Blackwell JR, Hay BA, Bolt AM, Hay SM. Olecranon bursitis: a systematic overview. Shoulder Elbow. 2014;6(3):182–190. doi:10.1177/1758573214532787
Inflammation of a bursa
Elbow bursitis occurs when the olecranon bursa’s synovial membrane becomes irritated and inflamed. The inflamed membrane may produce excess synovial fluid, causing the bursa to swell. A severe case of elbow bursitis can make it look as if there is a small egg or golf ball under the skin.
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.
Is It Septic Elbow Bursitis?
A bursa can become inflamed when it is infected. When bursitis is caused by an infection, it is called septic bursitis. The infected bursa may eventually fill with pus and the infection may spread to other areas of the body. Septic bursitis requires prompt medical treatment.
See Septic Bursitis
Septic elbow bursitis tends to cause similar symptoms as aseptic (non-infectious) elbow bursitis as well as fatigue, fever, warmth and redness at the elbow, and/or an overall feeling of being ill. Recognizing the symptoms of septic bursitis can lead to quick and appropriate treatment.