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Elbow Bursitis

Signs and Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis

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Updated July 15, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Elbow bursitis, also called olecranon bursitis, causes fluid to collect in a sac that lies behind the elbow, called the olecranon bursa.  Elbow bursitis is the most common type of bursitis.  A bursa is a slippery, sac-like tissue that normally allows smooth movement around bony prominences, such as the point behind the elbow. When a bursa becomes inflamed, the sac fills with fluid. This can cause pain and a noticeable swelling behind the elbow.  The olecranon bursa measures up to 6 cm in length, and can swell to a size larger than a golf ball.

Elbow bursitis may follow a traumatic accident, such as a fall onto the back of the elbow, or it may seemingly pop up out of nowhere. People who rest their elbows on hard surfaces may aggravate the condition and make the swelling more prominent.

Signs of Elbow Bursitis

The common symptoms of elbow bursitis include:
  • Pain around the back of the elbow
  • Swelling directly over the bony prominence of the tip of the elbow
  • Limited range of motion of the elbow

There are other conditions that can cause elbow pain and swelling, and these should also be considered as a possible diagnosis. Your doctor can usually diagnose elbow bursitis on examination, but an x-ray may be done to ensure the elbow joint appears normal. An MRI is not necessary to diagnose elbow bursitis, and will only be done if there is uncertainty about the diagnosis.

About 20% of individuals diagnosed with elbow bursitis have infection within the bursa, this is called infected elbow bursitis. Patients with systemic inflammatory conditions, such as gout and rheumatoid arthritis, have a higher chance of developing infected elbow bursitis.

Signs of Infection

The follow are signs of infection within the bursa. If you experience these symptoms, you should alert your doctor so he or she can evaluate for the possibility of an infected elbow bursitis:

  • Fevers
  • Chills or sweats
  • Redness around the back of the elbow
  • Breaks in the skin (scrapes/cuts) around the swollen area

Treatment of Elbow Bursitis

Most often, the treatment of elbow bursitis is accomplished with some simple steps.  It is important that foremost people understand that this injury occurred because of inflammation to the bursa.  Therefore, resting the elbow and preventing pressure on the back of the elbow is critical to successful treatment.  If people continue the same activities that led to the development of the bursitis, the problem is unlikely to go away. 

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