Elbow bursitis (EB), or olecranon bursitis, can cause a painless buildup of fluid on the elbow. It occurs due to inflammation of the olecranon bursa, the small fluid-filled sac on the tip of the elbow that cushions the bones, tendons, and muscles.

The olecranon bursa can become damaged due to injury, overuse, and repetitive motions. This damage may result in pain, swelling, and a limited range of movement in the elbow.

This article outlines the causes, symptoms, and risk factors for EB, and describes how doctors diagnose and treat the condition. It also discusses the outlook for people living with EB and when to consult a doctor.

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EB is a condition that occurs due to damage to the olecranon bursa. This small, fluid-filled sac sits on the tip of the elbow and acts as a cushion between the bones and soft tissues in that area. Fluid inside the bursa allows the soft tissues to glide over the bone with ease.

As the olecranon bursa sits near the surface of the elbow and receives limited blood flow, it is prone to trauma and infection.

In EB, damage to the olecranon bursa triggers inflammation and a buildup of fluid within the joint, which increases friction between the tissues and restricts movement.

Possible causes of olecranon bursitis include:

While anyone can develop EB, certain factors can increase a person’s risk of developing the condition. These include:

  • Elbow trauma: Injury to the elbow can increase a person’s risk of developing EB.
  • Certain occupations and hobbies: Elbow bursitis is more common among people who perform jobs, activities, or sports that require repetitive elbow movements. Examples include:
    • painting
    • digging
    • swinging a racket
  • Infection: An injury to the skin of the elbow can allow bacteria into the bursa sac, resulting in infection. Less commonly, the bursa may become infected in the absence of any injury to the skin.
  • Inflammatory conditions: The following inflammatory conditions can also trigger EB:
  • Other chronic conditions: Other conditions associated with EB include:

EB involves inflammation of the bursa, which may cause an accumulation of fluid on the elbow.

Other possible symptoms of EB include:

  • inflammation and swelling of the elbow
  • redness and heat in the elbow joint
  • pain and tenderness of the elbow, particularly when bending the elbow or applying pressure
  • difficulty bending or fully extending the arm due to thickening and swelling of the bursa
  • increased wear and tear of the elbow joint, causing the symptoms of EB

To diagnose EB, a doctor will review a person’s medical history and ask about symptoms. They may also ask about a person’s occupation and hobbies to assess whether they have any known risk factors for EB.

A doctor will then perform a physical examination of the affected arm and elbow to assess the following:

  • palpation or inspection
  • range of motion in the elbow joint
  • strength of muscles around the elbow

The following Imaging tests can help to confirm a diagnosis of EB:

Imaging tests can also help rule out underlying conditions that may cause similar symptoms, such as:

A doctor may also take a fluid sample from the bursa for further analysis.

Treatment for EB aims to alleviate pain, swelling, and inflammation while encouraging healing and preventing recurrences. The type of treatment a person receives will depend on the cause and severity of their EB.

Some potential treatment options for EB include:

  • avoiding activities that may stress and strain the elbow
  • practicing proper form and posture, and modifying movements
  • performing gentle exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion in the elbow
  • using assistive devices to support and protect the elbow, such as:
    • braces
    • splints
    • elbow pads
  • applying heating pads to the elbow to alleviate pain and discomfort
  • applying ice packs to the elbow to reduce swelling and inflammation
  • applying an elasticated compression bandage to help alleviate swelling
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief

If EB occurs as a result of a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics.

In some cases, a doctor may use a needle to aspirate the bursal fluid to help alleviate pressure and swelling.

If symptoms persist after 3–6 weeks, a doctor may recommend a corticosteroid injection into the bursa to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation. However, this procedure is not suitable in cases where there is an infection in the bursa.

In rare circumstances, surgery may be necessary to remove the inflamed bursa and restore typical joint function.

Usually, EB symptoms improve within a few weeks or months of conservative treatment. However, individual outcomes depend on the cause and severity of EB.

Most people can manage their symptoms with home treatments, OTC pain relievers, and lifestyle changes. Some individuals may require cortisone injections, physical therapy, or surgery.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of EB should consult a doctor for a diagnosis. Without treatment, EB can become chronic and may cause complications. It is also important for a doctor to rule out underlying conditions that may be causing EB.

A person must seek medical attention right away if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • pain, swelling, and redness in the elbow
  • any pus or drainage near the elbow

The above symptoms can indicate an infection that requires urgent treatment.

Trauma or injury to the olecranon bursa at the tip of the elbow can cause inflammation and fluid buildup in the elbow. The medical term for this is elbow bursitis (EB). Symptoms may include pain, swelling, and restricted mobility in the elbow joint.

Anyone who experiences symptoms of EB should contact a doctor for a diagnosis. EB can worsen without treatment, and the condition may have an underlying cause that requires intervention.

In most cases, EB symptoms improve in response to conservative treatments, such as rest, gentle exercise, and OTC medications. If symptoms persist, a person should talk with a doctor about additional treatment options, which may include needle aspiration, corticosteroid injections, or surgery.