Our joints link up our entire skeletal system; they quite literally hold us together and they give us the free movement to go about our daily lives, sitting, bending, flexing, running and jumping.
What Is Elbow Bursitis?
Bursitis is a condition which can affect any major joint in the body, but it occurs most commonly in the elbow, shoulder, hip and knee. It’s what happens when small, synovial fluid-filled sacs called bursa become inflamed. When they’re working normally, these sacs lie flat between our bones and the muscles and tendons surrounding a joint, acting as a little cushion to limit friction and keep our bodies moving in the way they should.
In the case of elbow bursitis, the bursa sitting against your pointy elbow bone – the olecranon – becomes irritated, usually resulting in visible swelling and inflammation that’s led to the condition sometimes being termed ‘Popeye’s elbow’, after the famous cartoon character and his strangely bulgy-looking joints.
Elbow bursitis is not an uncommon condition, but there are certain activities or lifestyle aspects that can make it more likely to arise and more likely to reoccur.
What Causes Elbow Bursitis?
There are a few factors that can cause or contribute to elbow bursitis. These include:
- Repetitive or excessive pressure – This is often the result of certain lifestyle factors and is perhaps the most common cause of elbow bursitis. For instance, if you’re a car mechanic or a plumber who spends a lot of time leaning on your elbows, you’re more at risk of developing the condition. Desk workers can get it too.
- Impact or trauma – Unfortunately, accidental knocks and falls can’t always be avoided and if you do experience a sudden blow to your elbow then this could lead to swelling of the bursa.
- Infection – Broken skin can lead to an infection, so if you’ve cut your elbow or received an insect bite or puncture wound, you could find that this is what you end up with in your olecranon bursa. This is known as septic bursitis, which can be very serious.
- Other conditions – There are certain conditions which can predispose you to bursitis, including arthritis, gout and diabetes.
- History of elbow bursitis – If you’ve had it once, this can mean you’re more likely to get it again – particularly if your lifestyle or additional conditions increase your risk.
Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis
Symptoms of elbow bursitis can vary in their severity, and according to whether you’re experiencing septic or aseptic (non-infected) bursitis. Look out for:
- Swelling – Following irritation of the elbow bursa, one of the first things you’ll probably notice is swelling in the area. This can be gradual or it can happen pretty fast, and it’s not uncommon for the swelling to reach the size of a golf ball.
- Pain – This is another very common symptom, although not everyone experiences it. Usually manifesting as a dull ache, it tends to arise as swelling increases and it may be worsened by movement of the joint. Severe cases can also limit your range of motion.
- Tenderness – Localised tenderness around the elbow is more prevalent in those with septic bursitis, but people with aseptic bursitis can experience this too.
- Warmth and redness – An inflamed bursa may lead to warmth or redness of your elbow skin, especially if you’ve got septic bursitis.
- Fever – A fever is a clear indication of an infection in the body, so you could experience this alongside other symptoms if you have septic elbow bursitis.
Treatment for Elbow Bursitis
In most instances, elbow bursitis will resolve itself with home treatment designed to target pain and take down swelling. The self-care regime recommended by the NHS entails rest and limited movement to avoid further irritation of the bursa. Putting any pressure on the joint should also be avoided. If you can, try to keep your elbow elevated to heart level too.
Cold is very effective when it comes to bringing down the swelling of elbow bursitis. You can use our cooling bandages on your elbow for hours at a time to swiftly reduce the pain and inflammation, as well as the warmth that can accompany bursitis.
There are certain instances where you’ll need to seek expert medical treatment from your GP, including if your symptoms persist after two weeks, you can’t move your elbow at all, or you’re experiencing a fever due to an infection. Septic bursitis calls for immediate attention and treatment with antibiotics to make sure the infection doesn’t spread. If there’s no infection of your elbow bursa, you could be given a steroid injection for the swelling.
Some injuries can be self-treated whilst others require prompt medical attention. You should seek advice from a health professional if: the injury causes severe pain, swelling, or numbness; you can't tolerate weight on the area; the pain or dull ache of an old injury is accompanied by increased swelling or joint abnormality or instability.