Bursitis and arthritis are conditions that affect the joints. While bursitis and arthritis symptoms can be similar, they have different causes and vary in location and duration. Identifying the cause of a person’s symptoms can help a doctor determine the best treatment.

Joint pain may be due to different conditions, including bursitis or arthritis. Both conditions can cause pain and discomfort, disrupting typical daily activities.

As the symptoms overlap, some people may have difficulty assessing if they have bursitis or arthritis. However, they also have a few differences that can help people tell them apart.

This article covers the similarities and differences between bursitis and arthritis, including treatment options.

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Bursitis is the inflammation or swelling of the bursae.

These are tiny, fluid-filled, jelly-like sacs that cushion the spaces between bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles near joints. Health experts note there are over 150 bursae in the body.

In bursitis, a bursa enlarges and fills with fluid, and any movement that causes direct pressure upon it will result in pain.

According to the Arthritis Foundation (AF), there are different types of bursitis depending on the location. Areas of the body most commonly affected by bursitis include the shoulder, elbow, hips, buttocks, knees, and calf — the back of the lower leg.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes people can treat bursitis at home, and it usually resolves within a few weeks.


Some common symptoms of bursitis include:

  • inflammation
  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • pain
  • stiffness
  • loss of movement

Learn more about bursitis.

Arthritis is a group of conditions that causes pain, inflammation, and swelling in the joints and surrounding tissues. There are over 100 types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis — the most common type of arthritis.

According to the AF, it is the leading cause of disability in the United States. Health experts estimate that 24% of U.S. adults, or 58.5 million, have arthritis.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that different types of arthritis have various symptoms. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and include:

  • joint pain
  • tenderness
  • stiffness
  • inflammation
  • limited range of movement
  • weakness
  • muscle atrophy, or loss of muscle

Learn more about arthritis.

Bursitis and arthritis affect different structures in the body. While arthritis affects bones and cartilage of joints, bursitis affects the bursa — fluid-filled sacs lubricating connective tissues.

A joint is a meeting point of two bones. A healthy joint consists of the following:

  • ligaments, which are elastic bands of connective tissues that surround the joint and provide support
  • synovial fluids that lubricate the joints and provide cushioning against friction
  • bursa located between the joints
  • a synovial membrane that forms the outer part of the bursa
  • tendons on each side of the joint that attaches to muscles and control movement

Bursitis and arthritis share symptoms, which includes:

  • swelling or inflammation
  • pain in the joint and surrounding tissues
  • stiffness

Both conditions may also affect structures in the same areas of the body, including the hips, shoulders, knees, and wrists.

To determine if a person has bursitis or arthritis, the doctor will evaluate the following factors:

  • The location: While bursitis originates from the bursa in between joints, arthritis originates in the joints.
  • Type and severity of pain: A person with bursitis can feel tenderness and pain resembling a dull ache around a joint, making it difficult to move it as usual. Symptoms for arthritis vary depending on the type a person has. However, it usually causes pain and stiffness in the joint.
  • Length of condition: Bursitis is acute and should resolve after a few weeks with self-care. However, arthritis is a progressive long lasting condition that can cause permanent damage.

The following cause bursitis and arthritis.


Some causes of bursitis include:

  • Trauma: A person may develop bursitis following trauma, such as a fall or car accident. The compression of the bursa can trigger an inflammatory reaction resulting in the swelling of the bursa.
  • Infectious disease: Infections can spread from surrounding tissues and invade a bursa, causing inflammation.
  • Other health conditions: Some medical conditions, including gout, tendonitis, arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid disease, can cause bursitis.
  • Overuse injury: Athletes, older adults, musicians, and people who do repetitive movements are more likely to get bursitis due to overuse injury. Some of these activities can include:
    • kneeling for extended periods, such as when cleaning the floor or laying carpet
    • extensive leaning on the elbow
    • painting
    • scrubbing


Scientists do not know why arthritis occurs, but they have identified some potential factors.

Some factors linked with arthritis include:

  • Age: A person’s risk of arthritis increases as they grow older.
  • Injury: Bone fractures and injuries due to contact sports or accidental falls can irritate the joints, causing arthritis. Jobs requiring repetitive flexion and extension movements, such as pulling a cart or lever, can cause joint wear and tear.
  • Having obesity: Having excess weight can add extra pressure on weight-bearing joints, causing arthritis.
  • Autoimmune disorders: People with autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, Sjogren’s syndrome, and systemic lupus erythematosus have a greater chance of developing arthritis.
  • Genes: People born with human leukocyte antigen are more likely to develop some types of arthritis. This includes rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis.

The following are treatment options for bursitis and arthritis.

Bursitis treatment

To treat bursitis, a doctor can recommend:

  • applying a hot or cold compress to the area of swelling
  • taking pain relief, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • taking antibiotics if the cause is due to infection
  • avoiding repetitive activities
  • using splints and braces for support
  • having the bursa drained if swollen

A person may also require surgery if symptoms do not improve after 6–12 months of using other treatments.

Arthritis treatment

To treat arthritis, a doctor may recommend the following:

To diagnose the cause of a person’s joint pain, the doctor will perform a physical exam and may order an additional test.

This can include:

  • an X-ray to assess any fracture or joint dislocation
  • an MRI to detect injury to soft tissues, and ligaments in surrounding joints
  • a CT scan to evaluate any bone deformity or tumor
  • blood tests to rule out the possibility of an infection

People should contact a doctor if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • sharp, shooting pain originating from the joints
  • joint pain
  • excessive swelling
  • fever
  • stiffness

The doctor will evaluate a person’s symptoms to determine the best treatment.

Although people can easily mistake the symptoms of bursitis for arthritis, they are two different conditions.

Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursa, which are fluid-filled sacs cushioning connecting tissues, including bones, ligaments, and tendons.

Arthritis describes over 100 conditions, causing pain and inflammation in the joints.

To determine if a person has bursitis or arthritis, the doctor will evaluate the origin, location, and severity of a person’s symptoms. They will also determine the best treatment.