Bursitis in Elbow: Causes & Treatment

Bursitis is actually the irritation or inflammation of the bursa and can be a painful condition. The bursa is a small sac filled with lubricating fluid, whose primary function is to cushion the tendons, bones, and muscles. These fluid-filled sacs decrease friction, rubbing and irritation, but these bursae sometimes become inflamed and cause severe pain. The most common locations for bursitis are in the elbow, shoulder and hip. The bursitis in elbow, medical known as Olecranon bursitis, can be extremely painful. It also goes by other names, such as student's elbow, elbow bump, Cilento's Disgrace, Popeye's elbow and baker's elbow. You have to look for certain symptoms to confirm you have bursitis in elbow.

What Are the Symptoms of Bursitis in Elbow?

Right between the loose skin of your elbow and the pointy bone is a fluid-filled sac called olecranon bursa. Under normal circumstances, it is flat, but sometimes, it becomes inflamed and irritated, leading to the accumulation of fluid in the bursa. You cannot see a bursa, but the inflammation causes it to thicken a bit. You will also experience a swelling. You will pain when touching the elbow. If it's seriously inflamed, you may even be able to feel it like a soft cyst close to your elbow. It usually doesn't affect the movement of your elbow joint, but the infection (septic olecranon bursitis) may cause some pain and tenderness behind your elbow.

What Causes Bursitis in Elbow?

You may become a victim of bursitis in elbow for many different reasons. Here are some reasons why you suffer from this painful condition.

  • Trauma: An injury caused by a hard blow directly to the tip of your elbow may make the bursa to produce more fluid and cause swelling.
  • Prolonged pressure: Putting excessive pressure on the tip of your elbow for extended hours may cause the bursa to swell. This type of bursitis doesn't develop overnight and usually takes several months to develop and show.
  • Infection: After an injury that breaks the skin, bacteria may get a chance to enter the bursa sac. This will develop an infection, making the bursa to produce excess fluid. You will also experience swelling, redness and pain. It requires medical attention or else the fluid may change into pus.
  • Medical conditions: Some medical conditions, such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis, may also cause bursitis in elbow.

How Is Bursitis in Elbow Diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will conduct a physical examination and ask you about the history of your activities and injuries. They may also recommend the followings to diagnose your condition:

  • Blood tests: You may have to go for a blood test to confirm if you have an infection or not. This also helps your healthcare provider confirm if you have another disease like rheumatoid arthritis that may be causing bursitis in elbow.
  • X-rays: Your doctor may ask for X-ray reports to check bone position problems, fracture and arthritis.
  • MRI: This scan utilizes powerful magnets and a computer to take detailed images of your elbow. The test will help identify any tissue damage due to an injury. Your doctor may also consider you contrast dye to get better images, but tell them if you are allergic to contrast dye. Make sure you don't have any metal in or on your body and remove it before entering the MRI room.
  • Fluid culture: Sometimes, your healthcare provider would want to check for serious infections. For this, they may consider testing a fluid culture collected by inserting a needle to drain fluid out of your bursa. Removal of fluid may also relieve some of your symptoms.

How Is Bursitis in Elbow Treated?

You don't usually require a treatment because the painless swelling or inflammation will clear without any treatment. If needed, you still have the following treatment options available to relieve symptoms and eliminate pain.

1. RICE Treatment

A simple way to fix your bursitis in elbow is to take (R)est, use (I)ce packs, (C)ompress it with a bandage, and (E)levate your elbow. In other words, you should stick to RICE treatment for relief.

2. Medications

You can use different medications to reduce swelling and pain. NSAIDs are usually effective in treating pain, swelling and fever. Talk to your doctor before opting for these medications and use them as directed to avoid kidney problems, stomach bleeding and other side effects. You may even need to use antibiotics if an infection has developed. Using steroid injections is another option if pain is unbearable.

3. Surgery

You may consider undergoing a surgical procedure to fix your problem, but the procedure may differ considering if you have an infected bursa or non-infected bursa. You usually require a surgery when your bursa is infected and doesn't respond to regular antibiotics. This is usually an inpatient procedure that involves removing your bursa. Even if you opt for a surgery, you may still have to take oral or intravenous antibiotics for some time.

Sometimes, the bursitis in elbow doesn't respond to non-surgical treatments, even though no infection is present. This is usually an outpatient procedure and you won't notice any issues with associated ligaments, muscle or joint structures.

After your surgery, you may have to live with a splint for a few weeks. You don't usually require any physical therapy after your surgery, but it is a good idea to perform specific exercises to avoid immobilization and improve the range of motion. It usually takes a couple of weeks for your skin to heal completely, but you can use your elbow only after 3-4 weeks of your surgery. You may even require some padding to avoid injuring your elbow again. 

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