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Bursitis is a painful condition that affects the joints. It occurs when fluid-filled sacs called bursae, which act as a cushion between bones, tendons, and muscles, become inflamed.

There are more than 150 bursae in the human body. They cushion and lubricate points between the bones, tendons, and muscles near the joints.

When a person has bursitis, these bursae become inflamed, making movement or pressure on the area painful.

Overuse, injury, or inflammation from gout or rheumatoid arthritis may cause bursitis. Tennis elbow is one type of bursitis.

In this article, we detail the parts of the body in which a person may experience bursitis, the symptoms of the condition, and how to treat it.

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People with bursitis will feel pain at the site of inflammation.

Any bursa can become affected, but the areas where bursitis most commonly occurs are the:

  • shoulders
  • elbows
  • ankles
  • knees
  • buttocks
  • hips
  • thighs

People may refer to specific forms of bursitis by other names. Tennis elbow, clergyman’s knee, and housemaid’s knee are all common terms.

The treatment of bursitis will depend on the severity of a person’s symptoms.

Self-treatment

A person may be able to treat their bursitis at home with the help of over-the-counter (OTC) treatments and some self-care techniques.

Self-care usually involves:

  • Protecting the affected area: Padding can protect the affected bursae from painful contact.
  • Resting: Not using the joints in the affected area unless necessary can help reduce inflammation.
  • Applying ice packs: Placing towel-wrapped ice packs on the affected area can help reduce pain and inflammation. A person should never place ice directly onto their skin. Ice packs for treating injuries are available for purchase online.
  • Raising the affected area: Elevating an affected area reduces blood pooling and may help lessen inflammation.
  • Taking pain relievers: Ibuprofen is effective as a pain reliever, and it may also help reduce inflammation. Ibuprofen is available OTC or online.

Medical treatment

Although most cases of bursitis are treatable at home, a person with severe bursitis may require prescription medications.

Steroids

The doctor may inject steroids into the affected area to relieve the symptoms. Steroids block a chemical in the body called prostaglandin, which causes inflammation.

However, doctors should prescribe steroids with care. These drugs may raise blood pressure and increase the risk of getting an infection if a person uses them for too long.

In addition, by reducing a person’s symptoms, steroid injections may cause a delay in diagnosing other conditions associated with the bursae. This may result in doctors missing the optimal time frame for some surgical procedures.

Antibiotics

If a fluid test confirms a bacterial infection, the doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics. They will generally recommend oral antibiotics, but a person may need to take them intravenously in more severe cases.

In rare instances, a person will require surgery to drain the affected bursa.

A person with bursitis may have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • pain that increases with movement or pressure
  • tenderness, even without movement
  • swelling
  • loss of movement

Septic bursitis occurs when an infection causes bursa inflammation. A person with septic bursitis may have the following additional symptoms:

  • fever
  • skin discoloration in the affected area
  • the affected area feeling hot to the touch

When to see a doctor

Many people treat bursitis at home, but if the symptoms are more severe, they should seek medical help.

More severe symptoms include:

  • joint pain that prevents all movement
  • pain lasting longer than 2 weeks
  • sharp, shooting pains
  • excessive swelling, bruising, or skin discoloration
  • fever

Bursitis can result from an injury, an infection, or a preexisting condition such as gout, which can cause crystals to form in a bursa.

Injury

Physical trauma can irritate the tissue inside the bursa and cause inflammation. This trauma may occur due to an impact injury or overuse of the joints, tendons, or muscles near the bursa. Overuse is typically the result of repetitive movements.

The cause of bursitis can determine the affected area of the body. Possible causes include:

  • Elbow: Bursitis is a common problem among tennis players and golfers. Repetitive bending of the elbow can lead to injury and inflammation.
  • Knee: Repeated kneeling can cause injury and swelling to the bursae in the knee area.
  • Shoulder: Repeated overhead lifting or reaching upward can cause bursitis in the shoulder.
  • Ankle: Injury to the ankle can result from walking too much and with the wrong shoes.
  • Buttocks: The bursae in the lower pelvis can become inflamed after sitting on a hard surface for a long time, such as on a bicycle. A person may notice discomfort in the buttocks and legs.
  • Hips: A person can develop hip bursitis due to excessive running, stair climbing, or standing for extended periods.

Infection

Infectious bursitis tends to occur in bursae that are nearer the surface of the skin, such as those near the elbow. A cut on the skin is an opportunity for the bacteria to get in.

As with other forms of bursitis, repeated trauma and the overuse of joints near bursae are the most common causes of infectious bursitis. However, people with conditions that affect the immune system may have a higher risk of developing bursitis through an infection.

Health conditions

People with certain health conditions are more likely to have crystals form inside the bursa. The crystals irritate the bursa and make it swell. Conditions that may cause bursitis include gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma.

A doctor will diagnose bursitis by examining the affected area and asking the person about any recent activities that may be causing joint stress.

If the individual has a high temperature, the doctor may take a small fluid sample from a bursa near the affected body part. They will send the sample to a lab, where technicians will test it for bacteria and, often, for crystal deposits.

If treatment is not effective, the doctor may carry out further tests to eliminate the possibility of a more serious condition.

These tests may include:

  • an X-ray to check for broken or fractured bones
  • blood tests to assess for rheumatoid arthritis
  • a CT scan or MRI scan to look for possible tendon or joint damage

People can take several steps to help prevent bursitis. These include:

  • Protecting vulnerable parts of the body: Individuals who kneel a lot can try using knee pads, while elbow braces can protect tennis and golf players. Athletes or avid walkers should invest in some good walking or running shoes.
  • Taking breaks during tasks: Apart from taking regular breaks, varying movements to use different parts of the body can help a person prevent bursitis.
  • Managing body weight: A person with excess body weight may experience increased stress on their joints. Managing their weight can help a person reduce the load on their joints and minimize their risk of bursitis.
  • Warming up before exercise: Before vigorous exercise, it is best to warm up for at least 5–10 minutes. Activities could include walking at a good speed, jogging slowly, or using an exercise bike.
  • Performing muscle-strengthening exercises: Strengthening the muscles in an area where bursitis has occurred, especially around the joint, can provide extra protection from injury.

Bursitis occurs when a bursa, one of the fluid-filled sacs that protect joints, becomes inflamed. The elbows, knees, hips, and shoulders are the most common sites of bursitis.

A person may experience bursitis if they regularly place pressure on or repetitively move these joints. Common forms of bursitis include tennis elbow, which occurs as a result of bending the elbow repeatedly, and clergyman’s knee, where repeated kneeling results in trauma.

Impact injuries may also cause bursitis, and infections can lead to septic bursitis.

Most forms of bursitis will resolve with periods of rest. However, some people may require medication or even surgical intervention to remedy the symptoms.

People can help prevent bursitis by protecting vulnerable joints, taking breaks during repetitive tasks, and maintaining a moderate weight.