Anatomy of the Elbow
Three bones join together to form the elbow: the humerus, ulna, and radius. The elbow is a hinged joint, and one of the most used joints in the body. The olecranon is the bony prominence at the end of the elbow (some people call it the “funny bone”) and is part of the ulna bone.
The elbow is designed to allow flexing (bending) and extension (straightening). Several structures help to reduce friction between the moving parts of a joint. The ends of the bones are covered with cartilage, which prevents bones from rubbing together during flexion and extension. The joint capsule, made of ligaments that attach bone to bone, forms a sleeve around the joint to provide lubrication and stability.
Bursae are small fluid-filled sacs that are located throughout the body at the major joints, such as the elbow. They act as shock absorbers and reduce friction between bones and soft tissues, such as tendons or skin. Normally, the olecranon bursa has only a small amount of fluid inside it and lies flat. However, inflammation can cause the bursa to accumulate more fluid.
What is Elbow Bursitis?
Elbow bursitis is inflammation of the olecranon (elbow) bursa. If the olecranon bursa becomes irritated or inflamed, it fills with fluid. This can both cause pain and limit movement at the joint.
Causes of Elbow Bursitis
Typically, elbow bursitis is an overuse injury. Although anyone can develop elbow bursitis, it is more likely to develop in people with the following risk factors:
- People who participate in certain activities. An individual who participates in an activity that requires them to make repetitive movements with their arms increases their chance of developing elbow bursitis over time. It is frequently found in athletes, musicians, and students. It is commonly referred to as “student’s elbow” since it occurs in people who rest their elbow on a hard surface, such as a desk, for a long period of time.
- People with certain jobs. People who perform physical labor for a living are at higher risk for developing elbow bursitis, especially those with occupations as plumbers, miners, mechanics, and gardeners.
- People with certain medical conditions. Having a condition such as arthritis, diabetes, or thyroid disease may make it more likely an individual will develop elbow bursitis.
Elbow bursitis can also be caused by a traumatic injury or an infection. A trauma such as falling or a sudden blow to one’s elbow can cause the bursa to accumulate more fluid and bursitis to develop. An injury to the tip of the elbow that breaks the skin can introduce bacteria inside the bursa and cause an infection.
Symptoms of Elbow Bursitis
Symptoms of elbow bursitis include:
- Swelling. The first noticeable symptom at the onset of elbow bursitis is often swelling that develops at the back of the elbow. However, since the skin in that location is loose, a small amount of swelling may go without notice initially.
- Eventually the swelling causes the skin to stretch, which leads to pain. It may be particularly painful when there is direct pressure on the elbow or when the joint is bent. If the swelling becomes severe, it may restrict motion of the elbow.
- Redness and/or warmth. If an individual has elbow bursitis due to infection, symptoms may additionally include the skin becoming warm and red. The individual may also develop a fever in association with the infection.
Diagnosis of Elbow Bursitis
Elbow is diagnosed after a physical examination by a medical professional. The provider will discuss the patient’s symptoms and examine the elbow. They may order an x-ray to look for a foreign body or bone spur to help determine what is causing the irritation and inflammation.
If an infection is suspected, the provider may drain the fluid from the bursa with a needle and send the fluid to the laboratory to be analyzed. This will allow them to determine if the infection is caused by infection or gout, and prescribe an appropriate antibiotic or medicine.
For elbow bursitis that is not due to infection, at-home treatments are usually enough to help the bursa heal. This condition may be managed by using elbow pads to cushion the elbow, or by avoiding activities that put pressure on the elbow. Pain and swelling may be managed with over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen. Symptoms typically resolve in 3 to 6 weeks.